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him to pessimism. Testimony of that sort, however, amounts
. to very little. A census of happy days is a census which it is impossible to take; and the case is hardly one in which reasoned conviction can be separated from intuitive perception. The arguments for optimism (or pessimism) are not like the demonstrations of geometry which appeal to all temperaments with equal force. Conclusion first and argument afterwards is the normal order of thought in such matters; and, so far as it is possible for one man to judge of another's life, one would say that the circumstances of Browning's life-in spite of the great sorrow which cut it in half—were such as inevitably to suggest the optimistic view. Let us consider.
In the first place, all the physical inducements to pessimism were eliminated by the enjoyment of exceptionally vigorous health. In the second place Browning knew what he wanted and got it-wanted, that is to say, to be a poet, and was enabled to be a poet without parental or pecuniary let or hindrance. In the third place his passion for romance was gratified, without the need of defying any social code, or setting himself at odds with the world; and his romance is one of the very few literary love stories which have continued as happily as they began, and have reached their end without any of the bitterness of disillusion. To realise the force of that last fact, one has only to contrast the circumstances and sequel of Browning's and Miss Barrett's elopement from Wimpole Street to Italy with those of George Sand's and Alfred de Musset's honeymoon in Venice. In the latter case we see a momentary caprice mistaken for a passion-a heart broken and thrown away-a lover transformed into a cynic and convinced, in the twinkling of an eye, that every woman was a grisette at heart. In the former our vision is of love, spiritualised and inextinguishable-an organic and inera dicable element of the two lives into which it had entered. Contrasting the two spectacles, we instinctively ask ourselves : Who, if not Alfred de Musset, was entitled to be a pessimist? Who, if not Robert Browning, was under an obligation to be an optimist?
One has no difficulty in naming poets whose lives were apparently more romantic than Browning's, or poets whom a severer emotional discipline has brought into closer contact with certain realities. One can name none whose experiences have combined in an equal degree the excitements of romance and the advantages derivable from placid accordance with the conventions. Extremes seem to meet in the record : the headlong enterprise, as it were, of Shelley, and the sober, well-regulated domesticity of Wordsworth; and his happiness, in so far as we have the means of measuring it, would appear to have been greater than that which either Wordsworth or Shelley enjoyed.
In the chronicles of Wordsworth's life we find rapture and ecstasy lacking. The great proof of the limitation is the fact that he invited his sister to accompany his bride and himself on his honeymoon. Shelley, on the other hand, though he knew rapture, knew disenchantment also. He was always seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is perhaps eternal,' but always failing to find it there. The social boycott oppressed him indirectly by its oppression of his wife, who revealed herself under its influence as common-place, conventional, and peevish. He and she both penned confessions of failure : she in the poem wrung from her by Shelley's death, he in the 'Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples,' which were no mere literary exercise. Browning's case was far more fortunate. He achieved such
. romance in his life as lay beyond the range of Wordsworth's dreams; and he achieved it without breaking any of the rules to which importance was attached in his native Camberwell ; and the joy which he had won he kept until the hour of the great tragedy. The world, recognising his romance as legitimately romantic, made no difficulties. Though he boasted himself 'ever a fighter,' he was never called upon to fight for his happiness as Shelley was. There was no special boycott, but a cooing chorus of sympathetic admiration; and he was never brought to face the doubt whether he had indeed found the likeness of the eternal in a mortal image. Everything, in short, happened in such a way as Camberwell could commend; and yet nothing happened which could give any scoffer an excuse for deploring the limitations of the Camberwell point of view. And so we come to, and may properly pause to dwell upon, the story of Browning's elopement with Miss Barrett.
We know all about it; and, of course, there are those who insist that we ought never to have been allowed to know. Even Mr. Chesterton expresses regret at the publication of the love letters : on the ground, apparently, that their peculiarities of diction tend to make sacred emotion ridiculous-a tendency which, it is to be feared, is no rare characteristic of love letters. One might reply that, when the sacred emotion stands the test, then no great harm is done; that it is precisely because romance triumphed so completely in the story that the world is curious about it; that the documents help us to visualise what seemed, in the early biographies, written without them, a bald and unconvincing narrative; and finally that they carry us back, as no mere summary of events could do, to those Early Victorian times in which the scene was laid. The essence of the love story is, of course, like the essence of all love stories, universal; but
VOL. LXXI—No. 123
the details and the mise-en-scène are nothing if not Early Victorian. The spectacle is not one of emancipated thinkers in revolt against Early Victorian restrictions. It is a spectacle of Early Victorianism accomplishing its own triumph in its own way, without doing violence to any single article of its accepted code.
There is nothing, it is true, characteristically Early Victorian in the actual language of the letters. Early Victorian language is, in a general way, intelligible; and the phraseology here is often as confusing as a corrupt chorus of the Agamemnon, or the less grammatical of the speeches in Thucydides. But the situation is Early Victorian; and so is the way of handling it; and so-most especially-is Miss Elizabeth Barrett. The present generation of unchaperoned, golf-playing, and revolting daughters would have as little patience and sympathy with Miss Elizabeth Barrett as with Miss Amelia Sedley, of whom Miss Barrett, in spite of her great gifts, sometimes reminds one. She was a malade imaginaire, stretched on a sofa, partly by compulsion, but partly also by conviction. At the age of forty, or thereabouts, and with a distinguished literary record behind her, she still feared to face an angry father, and harboured an old-world terror of strange men on the principle of omne ignotum pro horrifico.
She was, of course, in the language of her time, a 'blue-stocking.' She knew several languages, including Greek, and contributed to the Athenæum as well as writing poetry. say, no doubt, that she lived her own life,' in the sense that a certain intellectual, and even emotional, life of her own bubbled up in her whether she would or not; but she lived it in the face of Early Victorian protests, with Early Victorian submissiveness. Moreover, she went through life, especially when she walked abroad, with a complete set of the Early Victorian apparatus and paraphernalia : a lapdog, a carpet bag, a respirator, a flask of smelling-salts, and a supply of sal volatile, for use on the smallest emotional provocation. One seems to miss nothing-unless it be perhaps a talking parrot in a cage; and one feels a pleasure in filling up the picture with this Pre-Raphaelite accumulation of detail because it seems such a very unlikely mise-en-scène for a new setting of the old story of Prince Charming and the Sleeping Beauty.
Prince Charming assuredly was not expected either by the Sleeping Beauty herself or by those about her. It is seldom that a Prince Charming comes to look for his Sleeping Beauty in a darkened sick-room, reeking with a malade imaginaire's restoratives ; and in this case the couch of the malade imaginaire was jealously guarded by anxious relatives who had accepted her
as an eternal invalid, and stood around her to protect her nerves from any rude and sudden shock. They did not understand that sudden shock is sometimes the most effective cure for weakened nerves-as in the case, related in a well-known medical work on hysteria, of the lady who imagined that she was paralysed, but found that she could jump up and run when a passing soldier stooped to kiss her in her bath-chair. Indeed, Miss Barrett's father was a man who would probably have regarded the cure, by whatever means effected, of so confirmed an invalid as a blasphemous defiance of the declared will of Providence; and herself, though nearly forty years of age, hardly felt herself grown up, but had all the Early Victorian shrinking from conduct which could be classed as 'bold.' So events moved slowly, with all the Early Victorian hesitations and lettings of 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would.'
It began when Browning, at the suggestion of Kenyon, who was Miss Barrett's friend as well as his, wrote to Miss Barrett to tell her that her poetry had given him great pleasure; and one knows pretty well how a modern woman of forty--the romantic age-would have behaved in the circumstances. She would have known whether she wished the correspondence to lead to acquaintance or not; and if she had decided in the affirmative, she would have told Kenyon to bring the admirer of her genius to tea, or would herself have let him know that she was always at home on the first and third Tuesdays. A simple matter, as it seems to us; and it had to come to that -or something of the sort-in the end. But there had also to be preliminary negotiations; and those preliminary negotiations took no less than five months to complete. So far was Miss Barrett removed, in spite of her great artistic gifts, from the frank and easy camaraderie of the present century.
If she was not actually afraid of being seen by a strange man, she was, at any rate, quite sure that she ought to be, and that both her family and the strange man himself would be surprised and shocked at her if she were not. So she put it off, and put it off, making one excuse after another-her health, the weather, &c.—and protesting, with all the retiring feminine modesty of her epoch, that she was not worth seeing :
There is nothing to see in me; nor to hear in me—I never learnt to talk as you do in London. . . If my poetry is worth anything to any eye, it is the flower of me. The rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground and the dark. And if I write all this egotism it is for shame; and because I feel ashamed of having made a fuss about what is not worth it; and because you are extravagant in caring so for a permission which will be nothing to you afterwards.
It is just what Amelia Sedley might have said if she had been capable of such complicated sentences; and we may take it that Amelia Sedley would also have been capable of the postscript : 'If on Tuesday you should not be well, pray do not come!' One can imagine Amelia Sedley, too, hinting at the possibility of 'an unforeseen obstacle,' and enveloping the innocent visit in mystery, for all the world as if it were a guilty intrigue : 'My sister will bring you upstairs to me; and we will talk; or you will talk; and you will try to be indulgent, and like me as well as you can.'
Moreover one may doubt whether Miss Barrett saw, any more than Amelia Sedley would have seen, any humour in Browning's playful expression of satisfaction that at least he was not suspected of any desire to make mainprize of the stray cloaks and umbrellas downstairs.' One feels when one reads these things that one is indeed back in Dark Ages, hardly comprehensible to us, when things happened very differently from now.
There is more than a suggestion, again, of the Dark Ages in the incident which so nearly broke off the intercourse as soon as it had begun : in Browning's apprehension, that is to say, that the pleasure of his society might be disturbing to Miss Barrett's peace of mind, and his offer to withdraw before irreparable harm was done. To us, of course, who look at the matter from the modern point of view, his self-consciousness in the matter seems infinitely vain and silly; but it was really an act of deference to the social tyranny of the times. The possibilities of comradeship between men and women had not yet been realised. An unmarried man could hardly speak to an unmarried woman without taking the risk of being asked his 'intentions, especially in such parts of the town as Camberwell. It was supposed that the state of Miss Barrett's health forbade the entertaining of 'intentions'; and Browning's mistake was indubitably due to an excess of suburban delicacy. It was by the tact with which she helped him out of it that Miss Barrett proved her superiority to Amelia Sedley-and, incidentally, to her Early Victorianism. She sent the letter back, and Browning burnt it, with curses on a fatuity which was not personal but belonged to his period; and camaraderie was, in fact, established, and developed into the romance which ended in the most famous elopement in literary history.
It would take too long, and it would be superfluous, to retell the story in detail. All that one need do is to note how the Early Victorian atmosphere made dark and devious a situation which would nowadays be regarded as of absolute simplicity. Miss Barrett, it must be remembered, was forty, and had private means-some 4001. or 5001. a year-she was too unworldly to