Letters of Robert Browning

collected by Thomas J. Wise, edited by Thurman L. Hood
[Yale University Press, $5.00]
IN these letters every facet of Browning’s character is revealed. In the varying style of his correspondence we perceive the degrees of esteem and intimacy in which he held the different people to whom he wrote: the letters to Thomas Carlyle show the careful phrasing of reverence; the letters to his family are tender, unreserved; those to his close friends, Miss Isabella Blagden and the Storys, have the easy conversational tone of one who may confidently expect understanding and indulgence. The nobility of the letters Browning wrote at the time of his wife’s death is one aspect of the man. The outbursts of petulance against Alfred Austin and against Lady Ashburton are in contrast, but equally important. Here is a high-minded man in a highminded age, and, for all that, a human being not devoid of occasional coarseness and pettiness.
One advantage of reading letters is that facts and personages we have always taken for granted suddenly become alive and contemporary. Through most of the correspondence, kindled once more with its own idealistic fervency, runs the romantic devotion which held Browning faithful to his wife’s memory. At any unfavorable comment on her poetry, he leaps to her defense. A critic remarks that Mrs. Browning’s works are now forgotten; he writes back to say that her works, far from being forgotten, are more in demand than his own. An objectionable reference to Mrs. Browning in Fitzgerald’s letters leads him, toward the end of his career, into a deplorable breach of taste. Were we to single out one element other than his poetry which gave unity to Browning’s life, undoubtedly we should choose this fidelity to the dead. And in the letters it regains animation.
Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor, Swinburne, Tennyson, and hosts of other, by our time, almost legendary characters, are summoned from the shades. Browning’s estimate of these men’s characters shows a shrewd judgment, and much of his criticism of their works (although, for the most part, it takes account merely of weaker qualities) would stand unchallenged by the best modern authority. He complains that Tennyson, instead of studying the soul of man in his Idylls, is content to ‘describe the castle, the effect of the moon on its towers, and anything but the soul. He speaks of Morris as ‘sweet, pictorial, clever always — but a weariness to me by this time.’ But Browning was not ungenerous to his fellow poets, most of whom were his friends. One of the most moving passages in the book is the letter he wrote to Tennyson on the Laureate’s eightieth birthday: —
‘To-morrow is your birthday — indeed a memorable one. Let me say I associate myself with the universal pride of our country in your glory, and in its hope that for many and many a year we may have your very self among us — secure that your poetry will be a wonder and delight to all those appointed to come after. And for my own part, let me further say, I have loved you dearly. May God bless you and yours! . . .’
The entire volume is highly interesting to anyone concerned with Browning or his times. Professor Hood’s introduction, his appendix on ‘Browning and Lady Ashburton,’ and the majority of his notes are almost as interesting as the main text itself. The book is an achievement of unobtrusive scholarship.