Robert Browning

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Shortly after Browning's death a young man published his recollections of the poet in an English magazine. The extracts from that article will help one to appreciate the kindliness of the great poet.

"My first meeting with Browning came about in this wise. I was sitting in the studio of a famous sculptor, who, kindly forgetful of my provincial rawness, was entertaining me with anecdotes of his great contemporaries; amongst them, Browning. To name him was to undo the flood-gates of my young enthusiasm. Would my sculptor friend help me to meet the poet, whose teaching had been my only dogma? 'Oh,' said my friend, 'that's easy. Write to him—he is the most amiable fellow in the world—and tell him about yourself, and tell him how much you want to know him. Say, if you like, that you are a friend of mine.' The advice seemed simple but useless. I felt that not even the portfolio of unpublished poems which the imaginative eye might have beheld palpable under my arm could so fortify my modesty. But my friend assured me that Browning would not be offended, so, after waiting some weeks for my crescent courage, I wrote....

"I was taken up to his study and shown in. The first thing that struck me was that he had built up a barrier of books around his table, perhaps because he feared a too practical enthusiasm. Huge heaps of books lay on the floor, the chairs, the table, and at first I thought the room otherwise unoccupied. But suddenly a dapper little figure emerged from a huge armchair by the fire, and stepped briskly across the room. For a moment I was bewildered. The poet's face was familiar in photographs, but I had somehow imagined him a tall, gaunt man. I recovered myself to find him standing before me, holding both my hands and saying, 'Now this is really very kind of you, to come so far just to see an old man like me.' Then he dragged up a companion chair and forced me into it, standing for some moments by my side, with his hand on my shoulder. Then he sat down and said, 'Well, tell me all about yourself. Have you not brought some of your poems to show me?' Of course I had not. I wanted to see him and talk of his work. But for a while he would not let me do so. 'We'll talk about me later, if you like, though I'm rather tired of the subject,' he said, and proceeded to question me pretty closely about my aim and work. Then he sat and thought awhile, then came across to me and said, 'Do you know that I was nearly fifty before I made any money out of my writings? That's the truth, and you will understand my reluctance to advise any one to embark on such a cruel career. But—if you really mean to go in for it—I would do anything I could to shorten your time of waiting. So you must just send me some of your work, that I may give you my candid opinion, if you think it's worth having. And now come and see my books.'

... "We went down to lunch, and I was introduced to the poet's sister, who is, I was instantly ready to aver, the most charming little lady in the world. I don't remember much of the talk at lunch—except that it turned on Ruskin and his art views, with which latter, it seemed to me, Browning had not much sympathy. He told me two anecdotes designed to prove Ruskin's technical inaccuracy; one relating to Michael Angelo, the other to Browning's own exquisite poem, Andrea del Sarto. 'But never mind,' said Browning, 'he writes like an angel.'

"Lunch was finished, and my host apologized for having to turn me out, as he was obliged to attend some 'preposterous meeting,' he said. I was standing in the hall, saying good-by, when suddenly he turned and ran up-stairs. Presently he returned, bringing with him a copy of his wife's poems. 'Will you take this as a record of what I hope is only the first of many meetings?' he said. 'I can't find any of my own in that muddle upstairs, but I would rather you would have this than any of mine.' Yes, I took it, as proud as a boy could be who receives such an honor from his chief idol; prouder than I shall ever be again as I read the inscription: 'With the best wishes and regards of Robert Browning.' And I went away after he had made me promise—as though it were a thing I might be unwilling to do—to let him know when I should be next in town.

... "I called again at the beautiful house in De Vere Gardens. The poet had just come in, he told me, from a meeting of the committee for the memorial to Matthew Arnold, and he was evidently very depressed by the sad thoughts which had come upon him of his 'dear old friend, Mat.' 'I have been thinking all the way home,' he said, 'of his hardships. He told me once, when I asked him why he had written no poetry lately, that he could not afford to do it; but that, when he had saved enough, he intended to give up all other work, and go back to poetry. I wonder if he has gone back to it now.' Here Browning's voice shook, and he was altogether more deeply moved than I had ever seen him. 'It's very hard, isn't it?' he went on, 'that a useless fellow like me should have been able to give up all his life to it—for, as I think I told you, my father helped me to publish my early books—while a splendid poet like Arnold actually could not afford to write the poetry we wanted of him.'

... "The last visit I paid to Browning was short enough, but since it was the last, and was marked by one of the most graceful acts ever done to me, I may record it as the conclusion of these memories. He had written inviting me to call soon, but without naming a day or hour. 'If I should happen to be engaged,' he had said, 'I know that your kindness will understand and forgive me.' So I called on the first morning when I was free for an hour. He came across the room with his accustomed heartiness of voice and hand. 'But, my dear boy, why did you come to-day? In ten minutes I have an important business appointment which I must keep.' The ten minutes went all too soon, and I took my hat to go. He was profuse, but plainly sincere, in his apologies for turning me out, and made me promise to come again at a specified hour. I had hardly left the door, when I heard the scurry of footsteps and his voice calling me. I turned and saw him, hatless, at the foot of the steps. 'One moment,' he cried; 'I can't let you go till you tell me again that you are not offended, and I shan't believe that till you promise once again to come. Now, promise'—holding both my hands. Of course I promised, wondering how many smaller men would have shown the same courtesy. For some reason on my part, which I now forget, that appointment was never kept, and I saw him no more.

"As I stood in Poet's Corner that bitter day of last January, and saw him put to rest, I could not but think of him as I had seen him last, with the sunlight on his white hair, and I felt his warm hands, and heard his kindly voice saying, 'Now, promise!' and I could but think of that meeting as a tryst not broken, but deferred. And as I thought again of that life, so rich, so vivid, so complete; of that strong soul which looked ever forth, and saw promise of clear awaking to something nobler than the sweetest dream, I knew that here, at least, was one to whom death could do no wrong."

—Adapted from Littell's Living Age.