Victorian Poets: A Side Light


THE relative importance of the same thing at different times opens long vistas of inquiry. When William Jones Hoppin of Providence and New York found himself dining in London on a November evening of 1880 with James Russell Lowell and Robert Browning and listened to their discussion of Tennyson and other topics, including food and its flavors, he must have felt that he had taken part in nothing less than an occasion, and that it should be recorded. Within less than a week he wrote it all out in his journal; and here, after more than fifty years, it is — less important, if you will, than it looked to him, for Victorian poets in many eyes of the present day have been transmuted from living forces to museum pieces. Yet the record has a value even now, if only in showing that the Olympians of 1880 were capable of discoursing no more profoundly than anybody else — on subjects of no greater moment than those which have engaged the rest of mankind in all periods.

It has not yet become necessary to say just who Lowell, Browning, and Tennyson were, though plenty of critics are doing what they can to relegate them, through the avenue of the patronized, to the limbo of the forgotten. But who was Hoppin, and how did he happen to be dining with Lowell and Browning?

For the best of reasons, the chief of which was that for about ten years of his life, including the five, beginning with 1880, through which Lowell held the post of United States Minister to Great Britain, he was the first Secretary of Legation in London. Considerably older than the usual incumbent of such an office, in fact six years older than Lowell himself, one year younger than Browning, and only three years short of seventy at the time of the little dinner party, he was well qualified to hold his own at any gathering of the sort. He was an older brother of Augustus Hoppin, insufficiently remembered as an illustrator and writer. In New York he had been a founder of the Century Club and Metropolitan Museum, and a member of its original board of trustees, also president of the Union League Club. A connoisseur of pictures, a man of the world, much at home in London society, he was besides an indefatigable recorder of his experiences. Blessed, to posterity, is the keeper of diaries and scrapbooks.

The many scrapbooks of William J. Hoppin, who died in 1895, passed into the hands of his nephew, the late Joseph Clark Hoppin, well known as an archæologist. Through the kindness of his widow I was permitted to make their acquaintance while assembling for publication, accomplished late in 1932, a collection of hitherto unprinted letters of James Russell Lowell. Hoppin and Lowell became true friends in London, and many were the characteristic missives from the more to the less famous of the two men. The volumes containing them have now been added to the manuscript collections of the Harvard College Library, to which I am indebted for the copying of the passage now to be given. It was broken by Hoppin himself into sections each with its own heading, and will be broken further only by such interpolated notes as seem needed to clarify the narrative.


Sunday, November 21, 1880


The only event of interest for the past week was a dinner at Mr. Lowell’s where Mr. Browning was the only other guest. Both poets were in good form and it was a great treat. Mrs. L. was at table with Mr. B. at her left and I at her right.

Browning reminds me in his face of Tom Hicks. His hair and beard are very white and he wears both very short.

[A daguerreotype of Thomas Hicks, American painter, taken, in 1852, with Charles A. Dana and George William Curtis, does indeed bear a certain resemblance to Browning.]


Lowell thought that good cooking came originally from the Greeks — Browning said the ancients could not have had very just ideas on the subject as they seemed to think more of the rarity and expense of their food than of its flavor — e.g. nightingale’s tongues. They made a great deal of fish. Lowell said the Italian cuisine was better than the French. Browning had only been a short distance into Spain, but had an agreeable recollection of the cooking. I maintained that the French aimed to bring out the distinctive flavors of the food — not to disguise them. Browning said some men had extraordinary delicacy of perception of flavors. He told a story of a dinner to which an expert of this sort had been invited in order to pronounce upon the merits of a cook. He was a German. Among the dishes was a pie, or as the expert called it — a bye. The guest declared that this was cooked by a different chef from the one that prepared the rest of the dinner. ‘Impossible,’ said the host, and summoned the cook to the dining room, who admitted that the work was so great that he was obliged to call in a collaborateur. ‘I told you so,’ said the guest. ‘The ground motive of that “bye” was different from that of the other dishes.’

Browning thought American turkeys and apples the best in the world. He is fond of having a dish of fruit at his bedside and eating it during the night.

Lowell alluded to the excellent coffee he had at Lady Ruthven’s (pronounced Rivven’s) in Scotland who maintained the berry should be parched, ground, roasted and infused and drunk within the hour. Browning corroborated this, said that his coffee was always made in this way.


He was a great friend of this lady, chiefly on account of his intimacy with a former Lord Lothian of whom she was a devoted admirer. She is eighty years old and upwards and yet can repeat a hundred chapters in the Bible, of which she gives one each day at family prayers.


Lowell said he had bought the first edition of Pippa Passes and Bells and Pomegranates and ordered his bookseller to procure for him everything of that author’s writings. Browning said that a copy of these first editions now would bring more money than he had ever received for it. His father was very generous and insisted that every thing he wrote should be printed, and he himself preferred to keep it in that shape. He did not want to have Mss. lying about. At the same time he did not wish to incur large expense, so Moxon proposed to print these earlier works in double columns on single sheets. This brought the cost down to ten or a dozen pounds. It is extremely difficult to find a copy now in this shape and one would bring a large price. The sales were very limited. When a final account was rendered the balance coming to the author was so trifling that B. would not mention it. He gave an interesting account of how he came to write an introduction to Moxon’s edition of spurious letters of Shelley. B. thought they were trivial, whether they were genuine or not, and his introduction related to Shelley’s friends and life and not to these letters. Mr. Palgrave first discovered the counterfeit by observing the identity between the language of one of them and that used by his own father in an article for a Review. There could be no industry so remunerative as skilful forgeries of this kind. Mr. L. instanced the Marie Antoinette letters.

[Edmund Gosse, in the Dictionary of National Biography, relates this circumstance in similar terms, adding, ‘The letters were shown to be forgeries, and the book was immediately withdrawn.’ The forged letters of Marie Antoinette invalidated much of the writing about her before 1865.]

Mr. Browning said he had no new work in the publisher’s hands.


His excessive sensitiveness was mentioned. Lowell said he had happened to say of some man that he left a scent of patchouli behind him. Tennyson got the idea that Lowell had said that of himself and attacked him and his daughter (Mrs. Burnett) about it. [Mrs. Burnett, as Mabel Lowell in 1869, had visited Tennyson at Farringford with Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields. In an account of this visit, drawn from the diary of Mrs. Fields, which I published in the Cornhill Magazine for October 1927 under the title, ‘A Victorian Vista,’ there is no mention of Tennyson’s touchiness on the patchouli aspersion. Lowell’s daughter must have reported it to him herself.] Browning said that when he read a work of his to Lord Houghton, the latter objected to a single line, which Tennyson so took to heart that he postponed (I think he said for two years) the publication of the work.

When Tennyson was at Venice this year they took away from him, at the Octroi, a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of wine. He was so indignant that he applied to an English resident to make a complaint to the authorities on the subject and talked about it to anybody he met. The incident seemed to stand between him and the enjoyment of everything he went to see, and he constantly referred to it after his return to England.

I asked Browning if he knew the subject of the play that Tennyson had written for Irving and Miss Terry. He said that Locker had told him in confidence, but had at once crossed the room and told somebody else, so he supposed half the town knew it. He united it and an incident in old English history. Of course I did not press him. [Irving refused Tennyson’s Becket in 1879, only to ask the opportunity to produce it, as he did, in 1891. This would seem to be the play which Browning refrained from naming. On January 3, 1881, less than two months after the talk here recorded, Irving produced Tennyson’s Plutarchian tragedy, The Cup.]

Lowell and Browning agreed that Maud was Tennyson’s finest work. B. said that the Hallelujah poem lately published was very poor. [This was ‘The Human Cry,’ beginning ‘Hallowed be Thy name — Halleluiah!’ and few would dissent from Browning’s opinion of it.] It reminded him of an epitaph on a Mr. Brown which was to be written by the two residuary legatees — that being the condition of their inheritance. So they made alternate lines: —

Here lies Mr. Brown Here lies he Hallelujah Hallelujee!

Lowell thought that Tennyson considered himself that Maud was his finest work. Both L. and B. expressed admiration of Charles Tennyson’s sonnets — and of his brother’s introductory poem [‘At Midnight’].


Browning said that nothing could be more strange than Tennyson’s method of reading his own works. He seemed to think that the epithet of ‘Singer’ was to be literally interpreted, so he read in a cantabile — a slow monotonous chant, with no lights or shades.

Very few authors read their own works well. He, Browning, was once asked by Talfourd to listen to something not yet published. B. had taken a little more sherry than usual at dinner and fell fast asleep during the reading. When it was over and Talfourd pushed him for his opinion, he declined to give it until he should see it in print!

Procter (Barry Cornwall) used to fall asleep in this way and made Leigh Hunt angry by not expressing any opinion of a work the latter had read to him. Other friends were obliged to explain to Hunt that the reason of this omission was that Procter had not heard a word of it, which of course was not complimentary, but it was better than perfect indifference.


Browning said he had been taking luncheon with Lord Wentworth that day and had observed now and then the likeness to his grandfather. Lord W. told him that his mother said the best portraits of Byron were two miniatures she preferred. He had had one of them enlarged by photographing, and B. declared that there was a certain resemblance between the face and Lord W.’s.

[Lord Wentworth, second Earl of Lovelace, was a son of Byron’s daughter, Augusta Ada. Before succeeding to his title on the death of his older brother he had assumed the surname of Milbanke, the maiden surname of his grandmother, Lady Byron.]


Browning said he could not make a dinner speech and never accepted an invitation to an entertainment where he thought he should be called upon to give one.


That was all. The Victorian poets had got well beyond the musical glasses and taste as topics of conversations. Yet they are not to be seen plunging below the surface into the profundities of life and art. Hoppin may have liked them the better for this. And may not we?