Florence, July 5th, 1861.
"When some belovèd voice that was to you
Both sound and sweetness faileth suddenly,
And silence, against which you dare not cry,
Aches round you like a strong disease and new,—
What hope? what help? what music will undo
That silence to your sense? Not friendship's sigh,—
Not reason's subtle count,—not melody
Of viols, nor of pipes that Faunus blew,—
Not songs of poets, nor of nightingales,
Whose hearts leap upward through the cypress-trees
To the clear moon,—nor yet the spheric laws
Self-chanted,—nor the angels' sweet All-hails,
Met in the smile of God. Nay, none of these!
Speak THOU, availing Christ, and fill this pause!"
Thus sang the Muse of a great woman years ago; and now, alas! she, who,
with constant suffering of her own, was called upon to grieve often for
the loss of near and dear ones, has suddenly gone from among us, "and
silence, against which we dare not cry, aches round us like a strong
disease and new." Her own beautiful words are our words, the world's
words,—and though the tears fall faster and thicker, as we search
for all that is left of her in the noble poems which she bequeaths to
humanity, there follows the sad consolation in feeling assured that she
above all others felt the full value of life, the full value of death,
and was prepared to meet her God humbly, yet joyfully, whenever He
should claim her for His own. Her life was one long, large-souled,
large-hearted prayer for the triumph of Right, Justice, Liberty; and she
who lived for others was
Who died for Beauty, as martyrs do
For Truth,—the ends being scarcely two."
Beauty was truth with her, the wife, mother, and poet, three in one,
and such an earthly trinity as God had never before blessed the world
This day week, at half-past four o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Browning
died. A great invalid from girlhood, owing to an unfortunate accident,
Mrs. Browning's life was a prolonged combat with disease thereby
engendered; and had not God given her extraordinary vitality of spirit,
the frail body could never have borne up against the suffering to which
it was doomed. Probably there never was a greater instance of the power
of genius over the weakness of the flesh. Confined to her room in
the country or city home of her father in England, Elizabeth Barrett
developed into the great artist and scholar.
From her couch went forth those poems which have crowned her as "the
world's greatest poetess"; and on that couch, where she lay almost
speechless at times, and seeing none but those friends dearest and
nearest, the soul-woman struck deep into the roots of Latin and Greek,
and drank of their vital juices. We hold in kindly affection her
learned and blind teacher, Hugh Stuart Boyd, who, she tells us, was
"enthusiastic for the good and the beautiful, and one of the most simple
and upright of human beings." The love of his grateful scholar, when
called upon to mourn the good man's death, embalms his memory among her
Sonnets, where she addresses him as her
"Beloved friend, who, living many years
With sightless eyes raised vainly to the sun,
Didst learn to keep thy patient soul in tune
To visible Nature's elemental cheers!"
Nor did this "steadfast friend" forget his poet-pupil ere he went to
"join the dead":—
"Three gifts the Dying left me,—Aeschylus,
And Gregory Nazianzen, and a clock
Chiming the gradual hours out like a flock
Of stars, whose motion is melodious."
We catch a glimpse of those communings over "our Sophocles the royal,"
"our Aeschylus the thunderous," "our Euripides the human," and "my Plato
the divine one," in her pretty poem of "Wine of Cyprus," addressed to
Mr. Boyd. The woman translates the remembrance of those early lessons
into her heart's verse:—
"And I think of those long mornings
Which my thought goes far to seek,
When, betwixt the folio's turnings,
Solemn flowed the rhythmic Greek.
Past the pane, the mountain spreading,
Swept the sheep-bell's tinkling noise,
While a girlish voice was reading,—
Somewhat low for [Greek: ais] and [Greek: ois]."
These "golden hours" were not without that earnest argument so welcome
to candid minds:—
"For we sometimes gently wrangled,
Very gently, be it said,—
Since our thoughts were disentangled
By no breaking of the thread!
And I charged you with extortions
On the nobler fames of old,—
Ay, and sometimes thought your Persons
Stained the purple they would fold."
What high honor the scholar did her friend and teacher, and how nobly
she could interpret the "rhythmic Greek," let those decide who have read
Mrs. Browning's translations of "Prometheus Bound" and Bion's "Lament
Imprisoned within the four walls of her room, with books for her world
and large humanity for her thought, the lamp of life burning so low at
times that a feather would be placed on her lips to prove that there was
still breath, Elizabeth Barrett read and wrote, and "heard the nations
praising" her "far off." She loved
"Art for art,
And good for God himself, the essential Good,"
until destiny (a destiny with God in it) brought two poets face to face
and heart to heart. Mind had met mind and recognized its peer previously
to that personal interview which made them one in soul; but it was not
until after an acquaintance of two years that Elizabeth Barrett and
Robert Browning were united in marriage for time and for eternity, a
marriage the like of which can seldom be recorded. What wealth of love
she could give is evidenced in those exquisite sonnets purporting to be
from the Portuguese, the author being too modest to christen them by
their right name, Sonnets from the Heart. None have failed to read the
truth through this slight veil, and to see the woman more than the poet
in such lines as these:—
"I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange
My near sweet view of heaven for earth with thee!"
We have only to turn to the concluding poem in "Men and Women,"
inscribed to E.B.B., to see how reciprocal was this great love.
From their wedding-day Mrs. Browning seemed to be endowed with new life.
Her health visibly improved, and she was enabled to make excursions in
England prior to her departure for the land of her adoption, Italy,
where she found a second and a dearer home. For nearly fifteen years
Florence and the Brownings have been one in the thoughts of many English
and Americans; and Casa Guidi, which has been immortalized by Mrs.
Browning's genius, will be as dear to the Anglo-Saxon traveller as
Milton's Florentine residence has been heretofore. Those who now pass by
Casa Guidi fancy an additional gloom has settled upon the dark face of
the old palace, and grieve to think that those windows from which
a spirit-face witnessed two Italian revolutions, and those large
mysterious rooms where a spirit-hand translated the great Italian Cause
into burning verse, and pleaded the rights of humanity in "Aurora
Leigh," are hereafter to be the passing homes of the thoughtless or the
Those who have known Casa Guidi as it was could hardly enter the loved
rooms now and speak above a whisper. They who have been so favored
can never forget the square anteroom, with its great picture and
piano-forte, at which the boy Browning passed many an hour,—the
little dining-room covered with tapestry, and where hung medallions
of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Robert Browning,—the long room filled with
plaster casts and studies, which was Mr. Browning's retreat,—and,
dearest of all, the large drawing-room, where she always sat. It opens
upon a balcony filled with plants, and looks out upon the old iron-gray
church of Santa Felice. There was something about this room that seemed
to make it a proper and especial haunt for poets. The dark shadows
and subdued light gave it a dreamy look, which was enhanced by the
tapestry-covered walls and the old pictures of saints that looked
out sadly from their carved frames of black wood. Large book-cases,
constructed of specimens of Florentine carving selected by Mr. Browning,
were brimming over with wise-looking books. Tables were covered with
more gayly bound volumes, the gifts of brother authors. Dante's
grave profile, a cast of Keats's face and brow taken after death, a
pen-and-ink sketch of Tennyson, the genial face of John Kenyon, Mrs.
Browning's good friend and relative, little paintings of the boy
Browning, all attracted the eye in turn, and gave rise to a thousand
musings. A quaint mirror, easy-chairs and sofas, and a hundred nothings
that always add an indescribable charm, were all massed in this room.
But the glory of all, and that which sanctified all, was seated in a low
arm-chair near the door. A small table, strewn with writing-materials,
books, and newspapers, was always by her side.
To those who loved Mrs. Browning (and to know her was to love her) she
was singularly attractive. Hers was not the beauty of feature; it was
the loftier beauty of expression. Her slight figure seemed hardly large
enough to contain the great heart that beat so fervently within, and the
soul that expanded more and more as one year gave place to another. It
was difficult to believe that such a fairy hand could pen thoughts of
such ponderous weight, or that such a "still small voice" could utter
them with equal force. But it was Mrs. Browning's face upon which one
loved to gaze,—that face and head which almost lost themselves in the
thick curls of her dark brown hair. That jealous hair could not hide the
broad, fair forehead, "royal with the truth," as smooth as any girl's,
"Too large for wreath of modern wont."
Her large brown eyes were beautiful, and were in truth the windows
of her soul. They combined the confidingness of a child with the
poet-passion of heart and of intellect; and in gazing into them it was
easy to read why Mrs. Browning wrote. God's inspiration was her motive
power, and in her eyes was the reflection of this higher light.
"And her smile it seemed half holy,
As if drawn from thoughts more far
Than our common jestings are."
Mrs. Browning's character was wellnigh perfect. Patient in long
suffering, she never spoke of herself, except when the subject was
forced upon her by others, and then with no complaint. She judged not,
saving when great principles were imperilled, and then was ready to
sacrifice herself upon the altar of Right. Forgiving as she wished to be
forgiven, none approached her with misgivings, knowing her magnanimity.
She was ever ready to accord sympathy to all, taking an earnest interest
in the most insignificant, and so humble in her greatness that her
friends looked upon her as a divinity among women. Thoughtful in the
smallest things for others, she seemed to give little thought to
herself; and believing in universal goodness, her nature was free from
worldly suspicions. The first to see merit, she was the last to censure
faults, and gave the praise that she felt with a generous hand. No one
so heartily rejoiced at the success of others, no one was so modest in
her own triumphs, which she looked upon more as a favor of which she
was unworthy than as a right due to her. She loved all who offered
her affection, and would solace and advise with any. She watched the
progress of the world with tireless eye and beating heart, and, anxious
for the good of the whole world, scorned to take an insular view
of any political question. With her a political question was a moral
question as well. Mrs. Browning belonged to no particular country; the
world was inscribed upon the banner under which she fought. Wrong was
her enemy; against this she wrestled, in whatever part of the globe it
was to be found.
A noble devotion to and faith in the regeneration of Italy was a
prominent feature in Mrs. Browning's life. To her, Italy was from the
first a living fire, not the bed of dead ashes at which the world was
wont to sneer. Her trust in God and the People was supreme; and when
the Revolution of 1848 kindled the passion of liberty from the Alps to
Sicily, she, in common with many another earnest spirit, believed
that the hour for the fulfilment of her hopes had arrived. Her joyful
enthusiasm at the Tuscan uprising found vent in the "Eureka" which she
sang with so much fervor in Part First of "Casa Guidi Windows."
"But never say 'No more'
To Italy's life! Her memories undismayed
Still argue 'Evermore'; her graves implore
Her future to be strong and not afraid;
Her very statues send their looks before."
And even she was ready to believe that a Pope might be a reformer.
"Feet, knees, and sinews, energies divine,
Were never yet too much for men who ran
In such hard ways as must be this of thine,
Deliverer whom we seek, whoe'er thou art,
Pope, prince, or peasant! If, indeed, the first,
The noblest therefore! since the heroic heart
Within thee must be great enough to burst
Those trammels buckling to the baser part
Thy saintly peers in Rome, who crossed and cursed
With the same finger."
The Second Part of "Casa Guidi Windows" is a sad sequel to the First,
but Mrs. Browning does not deride. She bows before the inevitable, but
is firm in her belief of a future living Italy.
"In the name of Italy
Meantime her patriot dead have benison;
They only have done well;—and what they did
Being perfect, it shall triumph. Let them slumber!"
Her short-lived credence in the good faith of Popes was buried with much
bitterness of heart:—
"And peradventure other eyes may see,
From Casa Guidi windows, what is done
Or undone. Whatsoever deeds they be,
Pope Pius will be glorified in none."
It is a matter of great thankfulness that God permitted Mrs. Browning to
witness the second Italian revolution before claiming her for heaven. No
patriot Italian, of whatever high degree, gave greater sympathy to the
aspirations of 1859 than Mrs. Browning, an echo of which the world has
read in her "Poems before Congress" and still later contributions to the
New York "Independent." Great was the moral courage of this frail woman
to publish the "Poems before Congress" at a time when England was most
suspicious of Napoleon. Greater were her convictions, when she abased
England and exalted France for the cold neutrality of the one and the
generous aid of the other in this war of Italian independence. Bravely
did she bear up against the angry criticism excited by such anti-English
sentiment. Strong in her right, Mrs. Browning was willing to brave the
storm, confident that truth would prevail in the end. Apart from certain
tours de force in rhythm, there is much that is grand and as much that
is beautiful in these Poems, while there is the stamp of power upon
every page. It is felt that a great soul is in earnest about vital
principles, and earnestness of itself is a giant as rare as forcible.
Though there are few now who look upon Napoleon as
"Larger so much by the heart"
than others "who have governed and led," there are many who acknowledge
him to be
"Larger so much by the head,"
and regard him as she did,—Italy's best friend in the hour of need. Her
disciples are increasing, and soon "Napoleon III. in Italy" will be read
with the admiration which it deserves.
Beautiful in its pathos is the poem of "A Court Lady," and there are few
satires more biting than "An August Voice," which, as an interpretation
of the Napoleonic words, is perfect. Nor did she fail to vindicate the
Peace of Villafranca:—
"But He stood sad before the sun
(The peoples felt their fate):
'The world is many,—I am one;
My great Deed was too great.
God's fruit of justice ripens slow:
Men's souls are narrow; let them grow.
My brothers, we must wait.'"
And truly, what Napoleon then failed, from opposition, to accomplish by
the sword, has since been, to a great extent, accomplished by diplomacy.
But though Mrs. Browning wrote her "Tale of Villafranca" in full faith,
after many a mile-stone in time lay between her and the fact, her
friends remember how the woman bent and was wellnigh crushed, as by a
thunderbolt, when the intelligence of this Imperial Treaty was first
received. Coming so quickly upon the heels of the victories of Solferino
and San Martino, it is no marvel that what stunned Italy should have
almost killed Mrs. Browning. That it hastened her into the grave is
beyond a doubt, as she never fully shook off the severe attack of
illness occasioned by this check upon her life-hopes. The summer of 1859
was a weary, suffering season for her in consequence; and although the
following winter, passed in Rome, helped to repair the evil that had
been wrought, a heavy cold, caught at the end of the season, (and
for the sake of seeing Rome's gift of swords to Napoleon and Victor
Emmanuel,) told upon her lungs. The autumn of 1860 brought with it
another sorrow in the death of a beloved sister, and this loss seemed
more than Mrs. Browning could bear; but by breathing the soft air of
Rome again she seemed to revive, and indeed wrote that she was "better
in body and soul."
Those who have known Mrs. Browning in later years thought she never
looked better than upon her return to Florence in the first days of last
June, although the overland journey had been unusually fatiguing to her.
But the meeting was a sad one; for Cavour had died, and the national
loss was as severe to her as a personal bereavement. Her deep nature
regarded Italy's benefactor in the light of a friend; for had he not
labored unceasingly for that which was the burden of her song? and could
she allow so great a man to pass away without many a heart-ache? It is
as sublime as it is rare to see such intense appreciation of great deeds
as Mrs. Browning could give. Her fears, too, for Italy, when the patriot
pilot was hurried from the helm, gave rise to much anxiety, until
quieted by the assuring words of the new minister, Ricasoli.
Nor was Mrs. Browning so much engrossed in the Italian regeneration that
she had no thought for other nations and for other wrongs. Her interest
in America was very great,—
"For poets, (bear the word!)
Half-poets even, are still whole democrats:
Oh, not that we're disloyal to the high,
But loyal to the low, and cognizant
Of the less scrutable majesties."
In Mrs. Browning's poem of "A Curse for a Nation," where she foretold
the agony in store for America, and which has fallen upon us with the
swiftness of lightning, she was loath to raise her poet's voice against
"For I am hound by gratitude,
By love and blood,
To brothers of mine across the sea,
Who stretch out kindly hands to me."
And in one of her last letters, addressed to an American friend who
had reminded her of her prophecy and of its present fulfilment, she
replied,—"Never say that I have 'cursed' your country. I only declared
the consequence of the evil in her, and which has since developed
itself in thunder and flame. I feel with more pain than many Americans
do the sorrow of this transition-time; but I do know that it is
transition, that it is crisis, and that you will come out of the fire
purified, stainless, having had the angel of a great cause walking with
you in the furnace." Are not such burning, hopeful words from such a
source—worthy of the grateful memory of the Americans? Our cause has
lost an ardent supporter in Mrs. Browning; and did we dare rebel against
God's will, we should grieve deeply that she was not permitted to
glorify the Right in America as she has glorified it in Italy. Among
the last things that she read were Motley's letters on the "American
Crisis," and the writer will ever hold in dear memory the all but
final conversation had with Mrs. Browning, in which these letters were
discussed and warmly approved. In referring to the attitude taken by
foreign nations with regard to America, she said,—"Why do you heed what
others say? You are strong, and can do without sympathy; and when you
have triumphed, your glory will be the greater." Mrs. Browning's most
enthusiastic admirers are Americans; and I am sure, that, now she is no
longer of earth, they will love her the more for her sympathy in the
cause which is nearest to all hearts.
Mrs. Browning's conversation was most interesting. It was not
characterized by sallies of wit or brilliant repartee, nor was it
of that nature which is most welcome in society. It was frequently
intermingled with trenchant, quaint remarks, leavened with a quiet,
graceful humor of her own; but it was eminently calculated for a
tête-à-tête. Mrs. Browning never made an insignificant remark. All
that she said was always worth hearing;—a greater compliment could
not be paid her. She was a most conscientious listener, giving you her
mind and heart, as well as her magnetic eyes. Though the latter spoke an
eager language of their own, she conversed slowly, with a conciseness
and point that, added to a matchless earnestness, which was the
predominant trait of her conversation as it was of her character, made
her a most delightful companion. Persons were never her theme,
unless public characters were under discussion, or friends were to be
praised,—which kind office she frequently took upon herself. One never
dreamed of frivolities in Mrs. Browning's presence, and gossip felt
itself out of place. _Your_self (not _her_self) was always a pleasant
subject to her, calling out all her best sympathies in joy, and yet more
in sorrow. Books and humanity, great deeds, and, above all, politics,
which include all the grand questions of the day, were foremost in her
thoughts, and therefore oftenest on her lips. I speak not of religion,
for with her everything was religion. Her Christianity was not confined
to church and rubric: it meant civilization.
Association with the Brownings, even though of the slightest nature,
made one better in mind and soul. It was impossible to escape the
influence of the magnetic fluid of love and poetry that was constantly
passing between husband and wife. The unaffected devotion of one to the
other wove an additional charm around the two, and the very contrasts
in their natures made the union a more beautiful one. All remember Mrs.
Browning's pretty poem on her "Pet Name":—
"I have a name, a little name,
Uncadenced for the ear,
Unhonored by ancestral claim,
Unsanctified by prayer and psalm
The solemn font anear.
* * * * *
"My brother gave that name to me,
When we were children twain,—
When names acquired baptismally
Were hard to utter, as to see
That life had any pain."
It was this pet name of two small letters lovingly combined that dotted
Mr. Browning's spoken thoughts, as moonbeams fleck the ocean, and seemed
the pearl-bead that linked conversation together in one harmonious
whole. But what was written has now come to pass. The pet name is
engraved only in the hearts of a few.
"Though I write books, it will be read
Upon the leaves of none;
And afterward, when I am dead,
Will ne'er be graved, for sight or tread,
Across my funeral stone."
Mrs. Browning's letters are masterpieces of their kind. Easy and
conversational, they touch upon no subject without leaving an indelible
impression of the writer's originality; and the myriad matters of
universal interest with which many of them are teeming will render them
a precious legacy to the world, when the time shall have arrived for
their publication. Of late, Italy has claimed the lion's share in these
unrhymed sketches of Mrs. Browning in the négligée of home. Prose has
recorded all that poetry threw aside; and thus much political thought,
many an anecdote, many a reflection, and much womanly enthusiasm have
been stored up for the benefit of more than the persons to whom these
letters were addressed. And while we wait patiently for this great
pleasure, which must sooner or later be enjoyed and appreciated, we may
gather a foretaste of Mrs. Browning's power in prose-writing from her
early essays, and from the admirable preface to the "Poems before
Congress." The latter is simple in its style, and grand in teachings
that find few followers among nations in these enlightened days.
Some are prone to moralize over precious stones, and see in them the
petrified souls of men and women. There is no stone so sympathetic as
the opal, which one might fancy to be a concentration of Mrs. Browning's
genius. It is essentially the woman-stone, giving out a sympathetic
warmth, varying its colors from day to day, as though an index of the
heart's barometer. There is the topmost purity of white, blended with
the delicate, perpetual verdure of hope, and down in the opal's centre
lies the deep crimson of love. The red, the white, and the green,
forming as they do the colors of Italy, render the opal doubly like Mrs.
Browning. It is right that the woman-stone should inclose the symbols of
the "Woman Country."
Feeling all these things of Mrs. Browning, it becomes the more painful
to place on record an account of those last days that have brought with
them so universal a sorrow. Mrs. Browning's illness was only of a week's
duration. Having caught a severe cold of a more threatening nature than
usual, medical skill was summoned; but, although anxiety in her behalf
was necessarily felt, there was no whisper of great danger until the
third or fourth night, when those who most loved her said they had never
seen her so ill; on the following morning, however, she was better, and
from that moment was thought to be improving in health. She herself
believed this; and all had such confidence in her wondrous vitality, and
the hope was so strong that God would spare her for still greater good,
that a dark veil was drawn over what might be. It is often the case,
where we are accustomed to associate constant suffering with dear
friends, that we calmly look danger in the face without misgivings. So
little did Mrs. Browning realize her critical condition, that, until the
last day, she did not consider herself sufficiently indisposed to remain
in bed, and then the precaution was accidental. So much encouraged
did she feel with regard to herself, that, on this final evening, an
intimate female friend was admitted to her bedside and found her in good
spirits, ready at pleasantry and willing to converse on all the old
loved subjects. Her ruling passion had prompted her to glance at the
"Athenaeum" and "Nazione"; and when this friend repeated the opinions
she had heard expressed by an acquaintance of the new Italian Premier,
Ricasoli, to the effect that his policy and Cavour's were identical,
Mrs. Browning "smiled like Italy," and thankfully replied,—"I am glad
of it; I thought so." Even then her thoughts were not of self. This near
friend went away with no suspicion of what was soon to be a terrible
reality. Mrs. Browning's own bright boy bade his mother goodnight,
cheered by her oft-repeated, "I am better, dear, much better." Inquiring
friends were made happy by these assurances.
One only watched her breathing through the night,—he who for fifteen
years had ministered to her with all the tenderness of a woman. It was a
night devoid of suffering to her. As morning approached, and for
two hours previous to the dread moment, she seemed to be in a partial
ecstasy; and though not apparently conscious of the coming on of death,
she gave her husband all those holy words of love, all the consolation
of an oft-repeated blessing, whose value death has made priceless.
Such moments are too sacred for the common pen, which pauses as the
woman-poet raises herself up to die in the arms of her poet-husband. He
knew not that death had robbed him of his treasure, until the drooping
form grew chill and froze his heart's blood.
At half-past four, on the morning of the 29th of June, Elizabeth Barrett
Browning died of congestion of the lungs. Her last words were, "It is
beautiful!" God was merciful to the end, sparing her and hers the agony
of a frenzied parting, giving proof to those who were left of the glory
and happiness in store for her, by those few words, "It is beautiful!"
The spirit could see its future mission even before shaking off the dust
of the earth.
Gazing on her peaceful face with its eyes closed on us forever, our cry
was her "Cry of the Human."
"We tremble by the harmless bed
Of one loved and departed;
Our tears drop on the lips that said
Last night, 'Be stronger-hearted!'
O God! to clasp those fingers close,
And yet to feel so lonely!
To see a light upon such brows,
Which is the daylight only!
Be pitiful, O God!"
On the evening of July 1st, the lovely English burying-ground without
the walls of Florence opened its gates to receive one more occupant. A
band of English, Americans, and Italians, sorrowing men and women,
whose faces as well as dress were in mourning, gathered around the bier
containing all that was mortal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Who of
those present will forget the solemn scene, made doubly impressive by
the grief of the husband and son? "The sting of death is sin," said the
clergyman. Sinless in life, her death, then, was without sting; and
turning our thoughts inwardly, we murmured her prayers for the dead,
and wished that they might have been her burial-service. We heard her
"And friends, dear friends, when it shall be
That this low breath is gone from me,
And round my bier ye come to weep,
Let one most loving of you all
Say, 'Not a tear must o'er her fall,—
He giveth His beloved sleep.'"
But the tears would fall, as they bore her up the hill, and lowered "His
beloved" into her resting-place, the grave. The sun itself was sinking
to rest behind the western hills, and sent a farewell smile of love
into the east, that it might glance on the lowering bier. The distant
mountains hid their faces in a misty veil, and the tall cypress-trees
of the cemetery swayed and sighed as Nature's special mourners for her
favored child; and there they are to stand keeping watch over her.
"Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little
birds sang west,
And I said in under-breath, All our life is
mixed with death,
And who knoweth which is best?
* * * * *
"Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little
birds sang west,
And I 'paused' to think God's greatness
flowed around our incompleteness,—
Round our restlessness, His rest."
Dust to dust,—and the earth fell with a dull echo on the coffin. We
gathered round to take one look, and saw a double grave, too large for
her;—may it wait long and patiently for him!
And now a mound of earth marks the spot where sleeps Elizabeth Barrett
Browning. A white wreath to mark her woman's purity lies on her head;
the laurel wreath of the poet lies at her feet; and friendly hands
scatter white flowers over the grave of a week as symbols of the dead.
We feel as she wrote,—
"God keeps a niche
In heaven to hold our idols; and albeit
He brake them to our faces, and denied
That our close kisses should impair their white,
I know we shall behold them raised, complete,
The dust swept from their beauty, glorified,
New Memnons singing in the great God-light."
It is strange that Cavour and Mrs. Browning should have died in the same
month, within twenty-three days of each other,—the one the head, the
other the heart of Italy. As head and heart made up the perfect life,
so death was not complete until Heaven welcomed both. It seemed also
strange, that on the night after Mrs. Browning's decease an unexpected
comet should glare ominously out of the sky. For the moment we were
superstitious, and believed in it as a minister of woe.
Great as is this loss, Mrs. Browning's death is not without a sad
consolation. From the shattered condition of her lungs, the physician
feels assured that existence could not at the farthest have been
prolonged for more than six months. Instead of a sudden call to God,
life would have slowly ebbed away; and, too feeble for the slightest
exertion, she must have been denied the solace of books, of friends, of
writing, perhaps of thought even. God saved her from a living grave,
and her husband from protracted misery. Seeking for the shadow of Mrs.
Browning's self in her poetry, (for she was a rare instance of an
author's superiority to his work,) many an expression is found that
welcomes the thought of a change which would free her from the suffering
inseparable from her mortality. There is a yearning for a more fully
developed life, to be found most frequently in her sonnets. She writes
at times as though, through weakness of the body, her wings were tied:—
"When I attain to utter forth in verse
Some inward thought, my soul throbs audibly
Along my pulses, yearning to be free,
And something farther, fuller, higher rehearse,
To the individual true, and the universe,
In consummation of right harmony!
But, like a wind-exposed, distorted tree,
We are blown against forever by the curse
Which breathes through Nature. Oh, the world is weak;
The effluence of each is false to all;
Add what we best conceive, we fail to speak!
Wait, soul, until thine ashen garments fall,
And then resume thy broken strains, and seek
Fit peroration without let or thrall!"
The "ashen garments" have fallen,—
"And though we must have and have had
Right reason to be earthly sad,
Thou Poet-God art great and glad!"
It was meet that Mrs. Browning should come home to die in her Florence,
in her Casa Guidi, where she had passed her happy married life, where
her boy was born, and where she had watched and rejoiced over the second
birth of a great nation. Her heart-strings did not entwine themselves
around Rome as around Florence, and it seems as though life had been so
eked out that she might find a lasting sleep in Florence. Rome holds
fast its Shelley and Keats, to whose lowly graves there is many a
reverential pilgrimage; and now Florence, no less honored, has its
shrine sacred to the memory of Theodore Parker and Elizabeth Barrett
The present Florence is not the Florence of other days. It can never be
the same to those who loved it as much for Mrs. Browning's sake as for
its own. Her reflection remains and must ever remain; for,
"while she rests, her songs in troops
Walk up and down our earthly slopes,
Companioned by diviner hopes."
The Italians have shown much feeling at the loss which they, too, have
sustained,—more than might have been expected, when it is considered
that few of them are conversant with the English language, and that to
those few English poetry (Byron excepted) is unknown.
A battalion of the National Guard was to have followed Mrs. Browning's
remains to the grave, had not a misunderstanding as to time frustrated
this testimonial of respect. The Florentines have expressed great
interest in the young boy, Tuscan-born, and have even requested that
he should be educated as an Italian, when any career in the new Italy
should be open to him. Though this offer will not be accepted, it was
most kindly meant, and shows with what reverence Florence regards the
name of Browning. Mrs. Browning's friends are anxious that a tablet to
her memory should be placed in the Florentine Pantheon, the Church of
Santa Croce. It is true she was not a Romanist, neither was she an
Italian,—yet she was Catholic, and more than an Italian. Her genius and
what she has done for Italy entitle her to companionship with Galileo,
Michel Angelo, Dante, and Alfieri. The friars who have given their
permission for the erection of a monument to Cavour in Santa Croce ought
willingly to make room for a tablet on which should be inscribed,
SHE SANG THE SONG OF ITALY.
SHE WROTE "AURORA LEIGH."