The Marriage of the Brownings
From the portrait by Field Talfourd
When Wordsworth heard of the marriage of Robert Browning to Elizabeth
Barrett, he is reported to have said, "So Robert Browning and Miss
Barrett have gone off together. I hope they understand each
other—nobody else would." When Wordsworth said this he was an old man
and like most old men unable to appreciate the new. Compared with the
simplicity of much of Wordsworth's poetry a poem like A Death in the
Desert might seem unintelligible; but surely the same objection
cannot be urged against the poetry of Mrs. Browning.
The marriage of Robert Browning to Miss Barrett is the one dramatic
event in his quiet life. To one who has read his passionate and at
times fiery, unconventional poetry, the runaway, unconventional
marriage is not unaccountable, but altogether consistent. The manner
of it was thus:
In her youth Miss Barrett became an invalid through an injury to her
spine, an accident occurring while she was fixing the saddle of her
riding horse. As she grew older she was confined to her room. To move
from a bed to a sofa seemed a perilous adventure requiring a family
discussion. Her father was a strange unaccountable man, selfish and
obstinate, and passionately jealous of the affection of his children.
In the meantime Miss Barrett had written poetry that attracted the
attention of a kindred spirit. Robert Browning in 1845 wrote to her
saying that he had once nearly met her and that his sensations then
were those of one who had come to the outside of a chapel of marvelous
illumination and found the door barred against him. A little later he
suggested that he would like to call on her. This commonplace and
altogether natural suggestion threw the invalid into a state of
tremulous disapproval. With robust insistence Robert replied, "If my
truest heart's wishes avail, you shall laugh at east winds yet as I
do." Miss Barrett replied, "There is nothing to see in me nor to hear
in me. I never learned to talk as you do in London, although I can
admire that brightness of carved speech in Mr. Kenyon and others. If
my poetry is worth anything to any eye, it is the flower of me. I have
lived most and been most happy in it, and so it has all my colors. The
rest of me is nothing but a root fit for the ground and dark." A reply
such as this would be construed by any gentleman as a challenge. The
substance of Browning's reply was, "I will call at two on Tuesday."
On May 20, 1845, they met. In September, 1846, Miss Barrett walked
quietly out of her father's house, was married in a church, and
afterwards returned to her father's house as though nothing had
happened. Between the marriage and the elopement Robert Browning did
not call at the Barrett house on Wimpole Street. One of his
biographers says that this absence was due to an inability of
Browning to ask the maid at the door for Miss Barrett when there no
longer was a Miss Barrett whom he wished to see.
In passing judgment upon the elopement of this remarkable couple one
must remember that they were no longer giddy and rash youth. Browning
was thirty-four and the romantic Juliet was three years older. Again
it must be remembered that the objecting father was a most
unreasonable and selfish man. The climax of his selfishness was
reached when in opposition to the advice of the physicians Mr. Barrett
refused to allow his daughter to go to Italy. "In the summer of 1846,"
writes Mr. Chesterton, "Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the
great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant
deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight,
forbidden to see a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly.
A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged
up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up the crests of mountains at four
o'clock in the morning, riding for five miles on to what she calls 'an
inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.'"
Miss Mitford, the literary gossip of the period, writes a letter to
Charles Bonar, in which she gives expression to an opinion concerning
Browning's poetry which is not dissimilar to the one we quoted from
Wordsworth. Miss Mitford was an intimate friend of Elizabeth Barrett:
"The great news of the season is the marriage of my beloved friend
Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning. I have seen him once only, many
years ago. He is, I hear from all quarters, a man of immense
attainment and great conversational power. As a poet I think him
overrated.... Those things on which his reputation rests, Paracelsus
and Bells and Pomegranates, are to me as so many riddles."
In a later letter she writes to the same correspondent: "I at Miss
Barrett's wedding! Ah, dearest Mr. Bonar, it was a runaway match.
Never was I so much astonished. He prevailed on her to meet him at
church with only the two necessary witnesses. They went to Paris.
There they stayed a week. Happening to meet with Mrs. Jameson, she
joined them in their journey to Pisa; and accordingly they traveled by
diligence, by Rhone boat,—anyhow,—to Marseilles, thence took
shipping to Leghorn, and then settled themselves at Pisa for six
months. She says she is very happy. God grant it continue! I felt just
exactly as if I had heard that Dr. Chambers had given her over when I
got the letter announcing her marriage, and found that she was about
to cross to France. I never had an idea of her reaching Pisa alive.
She took her own maid and her (dog) Flush. I saw Mr. Browning once.
Many of his friends and mine, William Harness, John Kenyon, and Henry
Chorley, speak very highly of him. I suppose he is an accomplished
man, and if he makes his angelic wife happy, I shall of course learn
to like him."
The runaway match proved to be a most happy one. This is in disproof
of the common thought that a poet is of so sensitive and irritable a
disposition that no woman should expect a calm life with a poet. But
in this case we have two distinguished poets joining hands. They
lived in great happiness, nor was this peace and harmony purchased at
the price of servitude and humility of the one. Each respected the
other. Their romantic passion was based on a spiritual affinity. The
love letters of the Brownings may have some degree of obscurity, but
it should be said that the obscurity is one of expression, not the
obscurity of misunderstanding in the sense in which some of the
Carlyle letters are obscure. The list of literary men whose marriages
have proved unhappy is not so long and distinguished as is commonly
supposed. Milton, Landor, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Ruskin are
conspicuous examples of men who made shipwreck of marriage, but in
contrast shine forth the names of Browning, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and
Shakspere, for there is no evidence against the belief that
Shakspere's marriage was a happy one; then add to these the American
names, Longfellow, Lowell, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Holmes, and the
list is still incomplete.
In verse Mrs. Browning has most exquisitely expressed the power of
love to transform the gloom of her sick-room into the wholesome
sunshine of life,—
I saw in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turn had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,
"Guess now who holds thee?"—"Death!" I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang. "Not Death, but Love."