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Life and Letters of Robert Browning

Chapter 22

Author: Sutherland Orr Total hits: 3949 User hits: 1 Date: 05-07-2014

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Proposed Purchase of Land at Asolo—Venice—Letter to Mr. G. Moulton-Barrett—Lines in the 'Athenaeum'—Letter to Miss Keep—Illness—Death— Funeral Ceremonial at Venice—Publication of 'Asolando'—Interment in Poets' Corner.

He had said in writing to Mrs. FitzGerald, 'Shall I ever see them' (the things he is describing) 'again?' If not then, soon afterwards, he conceived a plan which was to insure his doing so. On a piece of ground belonging to the old castle, stood the shell of a house. The two constituted one property which the Municipality of Asolo had hitherto refused to sell. It had been a dream of Mr. Browning's life to possess a dwelling, however small, in some beautiful spot, which should place him beyond the necessity of constantly seeking a new summer resort, and above the alternative of living at an inn, or accepting—as he sometimes feared, abusing—the hospitality of his friends. He was suddenly fascinated by the idea of buying this piece of ground; and, with the efficient help which his son could render during his absence, completing the house, which should be christened 'Pippa's Tower'. It was evident, he said in one of his letters, that for his few remaining years his summer wanderings must always end in Venice. What could he do better than secure for himself this resting-place by the way?

His offer of purchase was made through Mrs. Bronson, to Count Loredano and other important members of the municipality, and their personal assent to it secured. But the town council was on the eve of re-election; no important business could be transacted by it till after this event; and Mr. Browning awaited its decision till the end of October at Asolo, and again throughout November in Venice, without fully understanding the delay. The vote proved favourable; but the night on which it was taken was that of his death.

The consent thus given would have been only a first step towards the accomplishment of his wish. It was necessary that it should be ratified by the Prefecture of Treviso, in the district of which Asolo lies; and Mr. Barrett Browning, who had determined to carry on the negotiations, met with subsequent opposition in the higher council. This has now, however, been happily overcome.

A comprehensive interest attaches to one more letter of the Asolo time. It was addressed to Mr. Browning's brother-in-law, Mr. George Moulton-Barrett.

Asolo, Veneto: Oct. 22, '89.

My dear George,—It was a great pleasure to get your kind letter; though after some delay. We were not in the Tyrol this year, but have been for six weeks or more in this little place which strikes me,—as it did fifty years ago, which is something to say, considering that, properly speaking, it was the first spot of Italian soil I ever set foot upon— having proceeded to Venice by sea—and thence here. It is an ancient city, older than Rome, and the scene of Queen Catharine Cornaro's exile, where she held a mock court, with all its attendants, on a miniature scale; Bembo, afterwards Cardinal, being her secretary. Her palace is still above us all, the old fortifications surround the hill-top, and certain of the houses are stately—though the population is not above 1,000 souls: the province contains many more of course. But the immense charm of the surrounding country is indescribable—I have never seen its like—the Alps on one side, the Asolan mountains all round,—and opposite, the vast Lombard plain,—with indications of Venice, Padua, and the other cities, visible to a good eye on a clear day; while everywhere are sites of battles and sieges of bygone days, described in full by the historians of the Middle Ages.

We have a valued friend here, Mrs. Bronson, who for years has been our hostess at Venice, and now is in possession of a house here (built into the old city wall)—she was induced to choose it through what I have said about the beauties of the place: and through her care and kindness we are comfortably lodged close by. We think of leaving in a week or so for Venice—guests of Pen and his wife; and after a short stay with them we shall return to London. Pen came to see us for a couple of days: I was hardly prepared for his surprise and admiration which quite equalled my own and that of my sister. All is happily well with them—their palazzo excites the wonder of everybody, so great is Pen's cleverness, and extemporised architectural knowledge, as apparent in all he has done there; why, why will you not go and see him there? He and his wife are very hospitable and receive many visitors. Have I told you that there was a desecrated chapel which he has restored in honour of his mother— putting up there the inscription by Tommaseo now above Casa Guidi?

Fannie is all you say,—and most dear and precious to us all. . . . Pen's medal to which you refer, is awarded to him in spite of his written renunciation of any sort of wish to contend for a prize. He will now resume painting and sculpture—having been necessarily occupied with the superintendence of his workmen—a matter capitally managed, I am told. For the rest, both Sarianna and myself are very well; I have just sent off my new volume of verses for publication. The complete edition of the works of E. B. B. begins in a few days.

The second part of this letter is very forcibly written, and, in a certain sense, more important than the first; but I suppress it by the desire of Mr. Browning's sister and son, and in complete concurrence with their judgment in the matter. It was a systematic defence of the anger aroused in him by a lately published reference to his wife's death; and though its reasonings were unanswerable as applied to the causes of his emotion, they did not touch the manner in which it had been displayed. The incident was one which deserved only to be forgotten; and if an injudicious act had not preserved its memory, no word of mine should recall it. Since, however, it has been thought fit to include the 'Lines to Edward Fitzgerald' in a widely circulated Bibliography of Mr. Browning's Works,* I owe it to him to say—what I believe is only known to his sister and myself—that there was a moment in which he regretted those lines, and would willingly have withdrawn them. This was the period, unfortunately short, which intervened between his sending them to the 'Athenaeum', and their appearance there. When once public opinion had expressed itself upon them in its too extreme forms of sympathy and condemnation, the pugnacity of his mind found support in both, and regret was silenced if not destroyed. In so far as his published words remained open to censure, I may also, without indelicacy, urge one more plea in his behalf. That which to the merely sympathetic observer appeared a subject for disapprobation, perhaps disgust, had affected him with the directness of a sharp physical blow. He spoke of it, and for hours, even days, was known to feel it, as such. The events of that distant past, which he had lived down, though never forgotten, had flashed upon him from the words which so unexpectedly met his eye, in a vividness of remembrance which was reality. 'I felt as if she had died yesterday,' he said some days later to a friend, in half deprecation, half denial, of the too great fierceness of his reaction. He only recovered his balance in striking the counter-blow. That he could be thus affected at an age usually destructive of the more violent emotions, is part of the mystery of those closing days which had already overtaken him.

* That contained in Mr. Sharp's 'Life'. A still more recent


gives the lines in full.

By the first of November he was in Venice with his son and daughter; and during the three following weeks was apparently well, though a physician whom he met at a dinner party, and to whom he had half jokingly given his pulse to feel, had learned from it that his days were numbered. He wrote to Miss Keep on the 9th of the month:

'. . . Mrs. Bronson has bought a house at Asolo, and beautified it indeed,—niched as it is in an old tower of the fortifications still partly surrounding the city (for a city it is), and eighteen towers, more or less ruinous, are still discoverable there: it is indeed a delightful place. Meantime, to go on,—we came here, and had a pleasant welcome from our hosts—who are truly magnificently lodged in this vast palazzo which my son has really shown himself fit to possess, so surprising are his restorations and improvements: the whole is all but complete, decorated,—that is, renewed admirably in all respects.

'What strikes me as most noteworthy is the cheerfulness and comfort of the huge rooms.

'The building is warmed throughout by a furnace and pipes.

'Yesterday, on the Lido, the heat was hardly endurable: bright sunshine, blue sky,—snow-tipped Alps in the distance. No place, I think, ever suited my needs, bodily and intellectual, so well.

'The first are satisfied—I am quite well, every breathing inconvenience gone: and as for the latter, I got through whatever had given me trouble in London. . . .'

But it was winter, even in Venice, and one day began with an actual fog. He insisted, notwithstanding, on taking his usual walk on the Lido. He caught a bronchial cold of which the symptoms were aggravated not only by the asthmatic tendency, but by what proved to be exhaustion of the heart; and believing as usual that his liver alone was at fault, he took little food, and refused wine altogether.*

* He always declined food when he was unwell; and maintained

that in this respect the instinct of animals was far more

just than the idea often prevailing among human beings that

a failing appetite should be assisted or coerced.

He did not yield to the sense of illness; he did not keep his bed. Some feverish energy must have supported him through this avoidance of every measure which might have afforded even temporary strength or relief. On Friday, the 29th, he wrote to a friend in London that he had waited thus long for the final answer from Asolo, but would wait no longer. He would start for England, if possible, on the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week. It was true 'he had caught a cold; he felt sadly asthmatic, scarcely fit to travel; but he hoped for the best, and would write again soon.' He wrote again the following day, declaring himself better. He had been punished, he said, for long-standing neglect of his 'provoking liver'; but a simple medicine, which he had often taken before, had this time also relieved the oppression of his chest; his friend was not to be uneasy about him; 'it was in his nature to get into scrapes of this kind, but he always managed, somehow or other, to extricate himself from them.' He concluded with fresh details of his hopes and plans.

In the ensuing night the bronchial distress increased; and in the morning he consented to see his son's physician, Dr. Cini, whose investigation of the case at once revealed to him its seriousness. The patient had been removed two days before, from the second storey of the house, which the family then inhabited, to an entresol apartment just above the ground-floor, from which he could pass into the dining-room without fatigue. Its lower ceilings gave him (erroneously) an impression of greater warmth, and he had imagined himself benefited by the change. A freer circulation of air was now considered imperative, and he was carried to Mrs. Browning's spacious bedroom, where an open fireplace supplied both warmth and ventilation, and large windows admitted all the sunshine of the Grand Canal. Everything was done for him which professional skill and loving care could do. Mrs. Browning, assisted by her husband, and by a young lady who was then her guest,* filled the place of the trained nurses until these could arrive; for a few days the impending calamity seemed even to have been averted. The bronchial attack was overcome. Mr. Browning had once walked from the bed to the sofa; his sister, whose anxiety had perhaps been spared the full knowledge of his state, could send comforting reports to his friends at home. But the enfeebled heart had made its last effort. Attacks of faintness set in. Special signs of physical strength maintained themselves until within a few hours of the end. On Wednesday, December 11, a consultation took place between Dr. Cini, Dr. da Vigna, and Dr. Minich; and the opinion was then expressed for the first time that recovery, though still possible, was not within the bounds of probability. Weakness, however, rapidly gained upon him towards the close of the following day. Two hours before midnight of this Thursday, December 12, he breathed his last.

* Miss Evelyn Barclay, now Mrs. Douglas Giles.

He had been a good patient. He took food and medicine whenever they were offered to him. Doctors and nurses became alike warmly interested in him. His favourite among the latter was, I think, the Venetian, a widow, Margherita Fiori, a simple kindly creature who had known much sorrow. To her he said, about five hours before the end, 'I feel much worse. I know now that I must die.' He had shown at intervals a perception, even conviction, of his danger; but the excitement of the brain, caused by exhaustion on the one hand and the necessary stimulants on the other, must have precluded all systematic consciousness of approaching death. He repeatedly assured his family that he was not suffering.

A painful and urgent question now presented itself for solution: Where should his body find its last rest? He had said to his sister in the foregoing summer, that he wished to be buried wherever he might die: if in England, with his mother; if in France, with his father; if in Italy, with his wife. Circumstances all pointed to his removal to Florence; but a recent decree had prohibited further interment in the English Cemetery there, and the town had no power to rescind it. When this was known in Venice, that city begged for itself the privilege of retaining the illustrious guest, and rendering him the last honours. For the moment the idea even recommended itself to Mr. Browning's son. But he felt bound to make a last effort in the direction of the burial at Florence; and was about to despatch a telegram, in which he invoked the mediation of Lord Dufferin, when all difficulties were laid at rest by a message from the Dean of Westminster, conveying his assent to an interment in the Abbey.* He had already telegraphed for information concerning the date of the funeral, with a view to the memorial service, which he intended to hold on the same day. Nor would the further honour have remained for even twenty-four hours ungranted, because unasked, but for the belief prevailing among Mr. Browning's friends that there was no room for its acceptance.

* The assent thus conveyed had assumed the form of an offer,

and was characterized as such by the Dean himself.

It was still necessary to provide for the more immediate removal of the body. Local custom forbade its retention after the lapse of two days and nights; and only in view of the special circumstances of the case could a short respite be granted to the family. Arrangements were therefore at once made for a private service, to be conducted by the British Chaplain in one of the great halls of the Rezzonico Palace; and by two o'clock of the following day, Sunday, a large number of visitors and residents had assembled there. The subsequent passage to the mortuary island of San Michele had been organized by the city, and was to display so much of the character of a public pageant as the hurried preparation allowed. The chief municipal officers attended the service. When this had been performed, the coffin was carried by eight firemen (pompieri), arrayed in their distinctive uniform, to the massive, highly decorated municipal barge (Barca delle Pompe funebri) which waited to receive it. It was guarded during the transit by four 'uscieri' in 'gala' dress, two sergeants of the Municipal Guard, and two of the firemen bearing torches: the remainder of these following in a smaller boat. The barge was towed by a steam launch of the Royal Italian Marine. The chief officers of the city, the family and friends in their separate gondolas, completed the procession. On arriving at San Michele, the firemen again received their burden, and bore it to the chapel in which its place had been reserved.

When 'Pauline' first appeared, the Author had received, he never learned from whom, a sprig of laurel enclosed with this quotation from the poem,

Trust in signs and omens.

Very beautiful garlands were now piled about his bier, offerings of friendship and affection. Conspicuous among these was the ceremonial structure of metallic foliage and porcelain flowers, inscribed 'Venezia a Roberto Browning', which represented the Municipality of Venice. On the coffin lay one comprehensive symbol of the fulfilled prophecy: a wreath of laurel-leaves which his son had placed there.

A final honour was decreed to the great English Poet by the city in which he had died; the affixing of a memorial tablet to the outer wall of the Rezzonico Palace. Since these pages were first written, the tablet has been placed. It bears the following inscription:







Below this, in the right-hand corner appear two lines selected from his works:

Open my heart and you will see

Graved inside of it, 'Italy'.

Nor were these the only expressions of Italian respect and sympathy. The municipality of Florence sent its message of condolence. Asolo, poor in all but memories, itself bore the expenses of a mural tablet for the house which Mr. Browning had occupied. It is now known that Signor Crispi would have appealed to Parliament to rescind the exclusion from the Florentine cemetery, if the motive for doing so had been less promptly removed.

Mr. Browning's own country had indeed opened a way for the reunion of the husband and wife. The idea had rapidly shaped itself in the public mind that, since they might not rest side by side in Italy, they should be placed together among the great of their own land; and it was understood that the Dean would sanction Mrs. Browning's interment in the Abbey, if a formal application to this end were made to him. But Mr. Barrett Browning could not reconcile himself to the thought of disturbing his mother's grave, so long consecrated to Florence by her warm love and by its grateful remembrance; and at the desire of both surviving members of the family the suggestion was set aside.

Two days after his temporary funeral, privately and at night, all that remained of Robert Browning was conveyed to the railway station; and thence, by a trusted servant, to England. The family followed within twenty-four hours, having made the necessary preparations for a long absence from Venice; and, travelling with the utmost speed, arrived in London on the same day. The house in De Vere Gardens received its master once more.

'Asolando' was published on the day of Mr. Browning's death. The report of his illness had quickened public interest in the forthcoming work, and his son had the satisfaction of telling him of its already realized success, while he could still receive a warm, if momentary, pleasure from the intelligence. The circumstances of its appearance place it beyond ordinary criticism; they place it beyond even an impartial analysis of its contents. It includes one or two poems to which we would gladly assign a much earlier date; I have been told on good authority that we may do this in regard to one of them. It is difficult to refer the 'Epilogue' to a coherent mood of any period of its author's life. It is certain, however, that by far the greater part of the little volume was written in 1888-89, and I believe all that is most serious in it was the product of the later year. It possesses for many readers the inspiration of farewell words; for all of us it has their pathos.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner, on the 31st of December, 1889. In this tardy act of national recognition England claimed her own. A densely packed, reverent and sympathetic crowd of his countrymen and countrywomen assisted at the consignment of the dead poet to his historic resting place. Three verses of Mrs. Browning's poem, 'The Sleep', set to music by Dr. Bridge, were sung for the first time on this occasion.

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