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An essay by George William Curtis

Robert Browning In Florence

Title:     Robert Browning In Florence
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is more than forty years since Margaret Fuller first gave distinction to the literary notices and reviews of the New York _Tribune_. Miss Fuller was a woman of extraordinary scholarly attainments and intellectual independence, the friend of Emerson and of the "transcendental" leaders, and her critical papers were the best then published, and were fitly succeeded by those of her scholarly friend, George Ripley. It was her review in the _Tribune_ of Browning's early dramas and the "Bells and Pomegranates" that introduced him to such general knowledge and appreciation among cultivated readers in this country that it is not less true of Browning than of Carlyle that he was first better known in America than at home.

It was but about four years before the publication of Miss Fuller's paper that the Boston issue of Tennyson's two volumes had delighted the youth of the time with the consciousness of the appearance of a new English poet. The eagerness and enthusiasm with which Browning was welcomed soon after were more limited in extent, but they were even more ardent, and the devoted zeal of Mr. Levi Thaxter as a Browning missionary and pioneer forecast the interest from which the Browning societies of later days have sprung. When Matthew Arnold was told in a small and remote farming village in New England that there had been a lecture upon Browning in the town the week before, he stopped in amazement, and said, "Well, that is the most surprising and significant fact I have heard in America."

It was in those early days of Browning's fame, and in the studio of the sculptor Powers, in Florence, that the youthful Easy Chair took up a visiting-card, and, reading the name Mr. Robert Browning, asked, with eager earnestness, whether it was Browning the poet. Powers turned his large, calm, lustrous eyes upon the youth, and answered, with some surprise at the warmth of the question:

"It is a young Englishman, recently married, who is here with his wife, an invalid. He often comes to the studio."

"Good Heaven!" exclaimed the youth, "it must be Browning and Elizabeth Barrett."

Powers, with the half-bewildered air of one suddenly made conscious that he had been entertaining angels unawares, said, reflectively, "I think we must have them to tea."

The youth begged to take the card which bore the poet's address, and, hastening to his room near the Piazza Novella, he wrote a note asking permission for a young American to call and pay his respects to Mr. and Mrs. Browning, but wrote it in terms which, however warm, would yet permit it to be put aside if it seemed impertinent, or if, for any reason, such a call were not desired. The next morning betimes the note was despatched, and a half-hour had not passed when there was a brisk rap at the Easy Chair's door. He opened it, and saw a young man, who briskly inquired,

"Is Mr. Easy Chair here?"

"That is my name."

"I am Robert Browning."

Browning shook hands heartily with his young American admirer, and thanked him for his note. The poet was then about thirty-five. His figure was not large, but compact, erect, and active; the face smooth, the hair dark; the aspect that of active intelligence, and of a man of the world. He was in no way eccentric, either in manner or appearance. He talked freely, with great vivacity, and delightfully, rising and walking about the room as his talk sparkled on. He heard, with evident pleasure, but with entire simplicity and manliness, of the American interest in his works and in those of Mrs. Browning, and the Easy Chair gave him a copy of Miss Fuller's paper in the _Tribune_.

It was a bright and, to the Easy Chair, a wonderfully happy hour. As he went, the poet said that Mrs. Browning would certainly expect to give Mr. Easy Chair a cup of tea in the evening, and with a brisk and gay good-bye, Browning was gone.

The Easy Chair blithely hied him to the Cafe Done, and ordered of the flower-girl the most perfect of nosegays, with such fervor that she smiled, and when she brought the flowers in the afternoon, said, with sympathy and meaning: "Eccola, signore! per la donna bellissima!"

It was not in the Casa Guidi that the Brownings were then living, but in an apartment in the Via della Scala, not far from the place or square most familiar to strangers in Florence--the Piazza Trinita. Through several rooms the Easy Chair passed, Browning leading the way, until at the end they entered a smaller room arranged with an air of English comfort, where, at a table, bending over a tea-urn, sat a slight lady, her long curls drooping forward. "Here," said Browning, addressing her with a tender diminutive--"here is Mr. Easy Chair." And, as the bright eyes but wan face of the lady turned towards him, and she put out her hand, Mr. Easy Chair recalled the first words of her verse he had ever known:

"'Onora, Onora!' her mother is calling,
She sits at the lattice, and hears the dew falling,
Drop after drop from the sycamore laden
With dew as with blossom, and calls home the maiden.
'Night cometh, Onora!'"

The most kindly welcome and pleasant chat followed, Browning's gayety dashing and flashing in, with a sense of profuse and bubbling vitality, glancing at a hundred topics; and when there was some allusion to his "Sordello," he asked, quickly, with an amused smile, "Have you read it?" The Easy Chair pleaded that he had not seen it. "So much the better. Nobody understands it. Don't read it, except in the revised form, which is coming." The revised form has come long ago, and the Easy Chair has read, and probably supposes that he understands. But Thackeray used to say that he did not read Browning because he could not comprehend him, adding, ruefully, "I have no head above my eyes."

A few days later--

"O gift of God! O perfect day!"--

the Easy Chair went with Mr. and Mrs. Browning to Vallombrosa, and the one incident most clearly remembered is that of Browning's seating himself at the organ in the chapel, and playing--some Gregorian chant, perhaps, or hymn of Pergolesi's. It was enough to the enchanted eyes of his young companion that they saw him who was already a great English poet sitting at the organ where the young Milton had sat, and touching the very keys which Milton's hand had pressed.

It was midsummer in Italy, but the high, narrow streets of Florence hold a protecting shade over the lingering pilgrim, and from such companionship as that of the Via della Scala even Venice long wooed in vain. But at last, reluctantly, although the fascinating way lay through Bologna and Ferrara, the journey began towards Venice; and in that city, so early and always dear to Browning, whose romantic life and story most deeply touched and stirred his imagination, and in which he lately died, the Easy Chair received from the poet a glimpse of his earliest impressions.

Writing from Casa Guidi, in Florence, on the 9th of August, 1847--Casa Guidi, upon which a tablet records that there Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived, and "Casa Guidi Windows," "Sonnets from the Portuguese," and "Aurora Leigh" were written--Browning says:

"The people of the house there [Via della Scala] told us honestly on the morning of your departure that they could only receive us for a single month, at the expiration of which were to begin certain whitewashings and repaintings. We continued our quest, therefore, and at last found out this cool, airy apartment, which we shall occupy for another month or six weeks, whatever be our subsequent plans, for Rome, or for the Venice you describe....

"I spent a month of entire delight there some eight years ago, and tho' nothing I have since seen has effaced the impressions of my visit, yet your fresher feelings _bring out_ whatever looks faint or dubious in them, as a gentle sponging might revive the gone glory of some old picture. (You must know I have seen an exquisite copy of a Giorgione, the original of which--so I was told--grew only visible and intelligible when thus wetted.) I am glad the railroad and gas-lighting do Venice no more wrong, and that you find all the old strange quietness, and--ought I to be glad of this, too?--depopulation; for of late years we have heard a great deal of the returning life and prosperity of the place; and Mr. Valery, I observe, retracts his earlier bodements of a speedy extinction of what little glimmer of light he still saw.

"As for me, I remember that the accounts of the depreciation of the value of houses, coupled with the indifference of the inhabitants of them, were enough to set one dreaming (in one's gondola!) of getting to be as rich as Rothschild, buying all Venice, turning out everybody, and ensconcing one's self in the Doge's palace, among the dropping gold ornaments and flakes of what was lustrous color in Titian's or Tintoret's time, waiting for the proper consummation of all things and the sea's advent.

"But do you really find the air so light and pure in this by right mephitic time of August, with those close _calles_, pestilential lagunes, etc., etc., and all that our informants frighten us with? Should a winter in Venice prove no more formidable in its way than it seems a summer does, why, we may have cause to regret our determination to give up our original plans. I am sure your kindness will tell us, should it be enabled, any good news of the winter and spring climate--if weak lungs may brave it with impunity."....

To this letter of Browning's, written in his young manhood--he was then thirty-five--about the Venice which always charmed him, may be well added the words of the Lady of Mura, written only a few weeks before the poet's death. Asolo is a sequestered town, which Browning said that he discovered, and in which he fell under the glamour of very Italy. In the prologue to his last volume, written in September before the letter that follows, the poet says:

"How many a year, my Asolo,
Since--one step just from sea to land--
I found you, loved, yet feared you so--
For natural objects seemed to stand
Palpably fire-clothed!"

The letter says:

"I have bought in ancient Asolo a narrow, tall tower, into which in the last century (very early) a house was built, and this curious place I have selected for villeggiatura when the scirocco is too strong in Venice for health or comfort. It was here that Browning fifty years ago was inspired to write 'Sordello' and 'Pippa Passes,' so to me it has that charm added to many others. It is such a rough and out-of-the-way little place that you may only know it by name. There is no hotel, no railway, no factory, no sign of modern civilization. It is on a hill, which has an ancient ruined fortress at the top, and was an old Roman settlement, with the usual Roman _mise en scene_, baths, amphitheatre, etc., in the days of Pliny, who somewhere mentions it.

"Near my tower, which is built in the ancient wall of the mediaeval town, is the tower of Caterina Cornaro, and one sees from most of my windows, so high are they, the whole Marca Trevigiana, with its tragic and dramatic associations of the early Middle Ages; the Eccelini, the Azzi, the incessant wars in which towns were treated by the tyrants like shuttlecocks in the game of battledoor.

"Browning and his sister have been here for the last six weeks, and you may fancy how intensely the poet enjoys revisiting after so many years the scenes of his youthful inspirations. He was only twenty-five or six when he first discovered Asolo.... Few young people are so gay and cheerful as he and his dear old sister."....

It is a pleasant last glimpse of Browning at Asolo, where the master-spell of Italy first touched his genius, and whither at the end he came--"_asolare_, to disport in the open air, amuse one's self at random"--at heart and in temper of the same unquenched and unquenchable vitality as on that summer day long ago when he sat where Milton had sat, and pressed, as Milton had pressed, the keys of the organ at Vallombrosa.

"Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?--
How strange it seems and new!"

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Robert Browning In Florence