The Marriage of the Brownings

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Robert Browning

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."