Robert Browning’s Enduring Devotion to and Defense of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Athenaeum. “To Edward Fitzgerald.” By Robert Browning. London: Published by J. Frances, etc. (13 July 1889, no. 3220, p. 64): ProQuest British Periodical Collections I

Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald. By Edward Fitzgerald. Edited by William Aldis Wright. London and New York: Published by Macmillan & Co. 1 of 3 vol.: 20cm. (1889): ABLibrary Non-Rare 826.8 F553w

Robert Browning’s Poetical Works. The Ring and the Book. By Robert Browning. London: Printed by Smith, Elder & Co. in 1 of 3 vol.; 19cm. (1889): ABLibrary Rare X 821.83×3 S646r 1889

Rare Item Analysis: Robert Browning’s Enduring Devotion to and Defense of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by Ray Stockstad

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

Housed within the Armstrong Browning Library’s (ABL) Rare Books Collection is the three-volume collection, Robert Browning’s Poetical Works. Browning’s master work, The Ring and the Book begins the first volume. Not far away, in the ABL’s Non-Rare Books Collection, Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald may be found, which contains personal correspondence collected after Fitzgerald’s death. Robert Browning (RB) spent much of 1887 and 1888 collecting and revising his collected works. While visiting a friend, RB happened upon a copy of Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald. Reading Fitzgerald’s scathing criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) prompted him to defend her memory. RB establishes his devotion and defense in the closing lines of Books I and XII of The Ring and the Book. RB’s poem to defend EBB’s memory from Fitzgerald’s posthumous attack was published in The Athenaeum no. 3220 on 13 July 1889, also housed in the ABL and available in its digitized form through ProQuest in the British Periodical Collections I.

Browning’s poem, “To Edward Fitzgerald,” shows his deep devotion to EBB and his desire to defend his wife’s memory against the callous slights of a dead man. By reading The Ring and the Book, particularly the end of the first and last books, readers will have a sense of RB’s view of the marriage band or ring as representative of a duty to guard his spouse. With that understanding, readers should then examine Fitzgerald’s letter to William Hepworth Thompson dated July 15, 1861, about two weeks after EBB’s death, and read Fitzgerald’s remarks on the matter of her passing. Afterwards, readers, when reading “To Edward Fitzgerald,” may reflect upon how the deaths of EBB and Fitzgerald have not excused RB from his sense of duty and devotion to his wife. Contextualizing RB’s “To Edward Fitzgerald” within these letters helps modern readers understand its tone and content.

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of Fitzgerald after his death on June 14, 1883, “I had no truer friend: he was one of the kindliest of men, and I have never known one of so fine and delicate a wit.” Fitzgerald, best known for his creative translation of the eleventh-century Persian poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was also a harsh critic of friends and strangers alike. Alfred McKinley Terhune says Fitzgerald believed people who published their work thought there was something good about it and should welcome criticism to improve the work. In fact, after EBB published her poem, Casa Guidi Windows, Fitzgerald remarked in a letter to the Persian linguist Edward Byles Cowell, his friend and mentor, on June 13, 1851, “I see extracts in the Athenaeum from a new poem of Mrs. Barrett Browning—Casa Guidi Windows—a Dantesque survey of Italy—and really I am compelled to think her now a greater Poet than Tennyson! . . . Yet I do not believe her Poems are good enough to live.” His high regard for her work, however, was not to last, and he turned his “fine and delicate” wit against her, her master work Aurora Leigh, and all women writers in a letter to W. H. Thompson of Trinity College shortly after EBB’s death. In it he states,

Mrs. Browning’s Death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs, thank God! A woman of real Genius, I know: but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children; and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all. (407)

While Fitzgerald’s biographer, Alfred McKinley Terhune, attempts to minimize the offensive wording of a passage that he thinks is only “superficially considered . . . painfully callous” and attempts to argue that “Fitzgerald was thinking more of the poem than the poetess,” the attack clearly extends beyond a criticism of her work, becoming a criticism of EBB herself, her work, and her gender’s ability to write literature (255). Terhune would have his audience accept that most people engage in more lively, less reserved discourse when they believe they are writing to a select few readers, but this unfiltered attack against EBB would come to light after Fitzgerald’s death and pass before the grieving eyes of RB.

RB’s eyes would not see the letter until 28 years had passed and his grief, although not raw, was still present. Not long before Fitzgerald’s churlish words were passed to Thompson, RB wrote to EBB’s brother, George Barrett, on June 29, 1861, detailing the last few days of EBB’s life. He closed this description writing, “the last night she sate up by herself, cleaned her teeth, washed her face and combed her hair without the least assistance — and she took two servings of jelly from me spoonful by spoonful and drank a glass of lemonade not a quarter of an hour before the end: * this is all I can bear to tell you now of it.” RB had devoted himself to EBB’s happiness and well-being, placing his writing career on hiatus for much of their marriage; however, her life and their love became an inspiration for his poetry throughout the rest of his life. An important example of this devotional inspiration is The Ring and the Book.

In the final stanza of “Book I: The Ring and the Book,” RB invokes his wife as a muse, an angel. He writes, “O lyric Love, half angel and half bird / And all a wonder and a wild desire,— / Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun” (1391-93) and later, “to drop down, / To toil for man, to suffer or to die” (1399-1400). For RB, EBB is otherworldly and takes her gifts from God to share for a brief while with humanity. He attributes what skill he now has to having been taught by her: “Never may I commence my song, my due / To God who best taught song by gift of thee” (1403-1404). She is his sole source of inspiration. His multiple attempts to divine what RB biographer Clyde de L. Ryals calls “a right interpretation . . . [which for Browning is] always provisional: an approximation of truth for the time being” within the poem are his attempt to understand mankind’s existence and its relationship to God and all His creation (170). “Book XII: The Ring and the Book’s” final stanza, concludes, “Render all duty which good ring should do, / And, failing grace, succeed in guardianship,— / Might mine but lie outside thine, Lyric Love, / Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised) / Linking our England to his Italy!” (870-874). Here Ryals applauds RB’s attempt to extol “the soul-saving value of art” on the ground that RB has set this poem, inspired by his love for EBB, as a guardian ring around her work. It is this very guardianship, renewed in his collecting and revising his works from 1887 until his death in 1889, that leads him to respond to Fitzgerald’s posthumous provocation.

Atheneum page image

The brief time between when RB reads Fitzgerald’s letter to Thompson and composes his poetic retort is only slightly less astonishing than its rapid publication in The Athenaeum five days later. Ryals writes, “the poem caused an uproar and its writer felt that he had humiliated both himself and his dead wife” (237). However, it is understandable that his ire would have been so great given his recent reworking of a poem dedicated to the protection of his wife’s work. Ryals and others believe that the uproar stemming from the poem instigated RB’s decline in health leading to his death; only four months later, RB died at his son Pen’s home in Venice on December 12, 1889. Near the end of his life “Summum Bonum,” which appears in his collection Asolando: Fancies and Facts, details the concentration of greatness in single things, concluding, “Truth, that’s brighter than gem, / Trust, that’s purer than pearl,— / Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe—all were / for me / In the kiss of one girl.” RB’s memory of EBB’s kisses remained with him long after her death given that kissing her husband was EBB’s last earthly act. As EBB biographer Margaret Forster, inspired by her reading of RB’s July 3rd letter to George Barrett, writes, EBB “kissed her own hands and raised them up towards him as though trying to shower him with kisses” shortly before she died (366). For that one girl, his EBB, RB risked health and reputation to defend the truth and trust between them.

Summum Bonum page image

EBB’s last kiss, in RB’s mind, sanctified his own lips. With those same lips RB offered Fitzgerald a posthumous response in the Athenaeum to his desecration of EBB’s memory, whom RB had sworn guardianship in writing,

Ay dead! And were yourself alive, good Fitz,

How to return you thanks would task my wits:

Kicking you seems the common lot of curs—

While more appropriate greetings lends you grace:

Surely to spit there glorifies your face—

Spitting—from lips once sanctified by Hers. (7-12)

RB’s defense of EBB in life would soon be over, but his work continues to defend hers. The controversy and drama surrounding Fitzgerald’s thoughtless cruelty and RB’s ardent reply continues to fascinate and incense modern scholars and fans of the Brownings alike.

These items held at the Armstrong Browning Library reveal an aspect of the daily lives of authors that audiences sometimes overlook: writers are people, too. They have complex relationships and are emotional. The correspondence among Tennyson, Fitzgerald, Thompson, Cowell, Barrett, RB, and EBB are revealing and can build new insights into their works. This incident is a clear example of how relationships can inspire artists, for good or ill, to create. Even within RB’s poem “To Edward Fitzgerald” lie potential lines of inquiry for Browning and Fitzgerald scholars alike, for instance: Were Fitzgerald and EBB acquainted with one another personally? In the holdings of the British Library within a letter from RB to Pen Browning, RB tells his son that he was at first concerned that Fitzgerald’s comments were in a letter to Tennyson. Is it possible that RB and Tennyson spoke of or corresponded about this letter after RB learned of it? Teaching this dramatic exchange could energize literature courses and show some of the creative underpinnings of some of the great poets of the Victorian era.

Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, and Robert Browning. Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett. Edited by Paul Landis with the Assistance of Ronald E. Freeman. University of Illinois Press, 1958.

Browning, Robert. The Ring and the Book. Edited by Thomas J. Collins and Richard D. Altick. Broadview Press, 2001.

Browning, Robert. “Summum Bonum.” Asolando: Fancies and Facts. 6th ed., Smith, Elder, & Co., 1890.

Browning, Robert. “To Edward Fitzgerald.” Athenaeum, no. 3220, J. Frances, etc., 13 July 1889, p. 64, http://search.proquest.com/docview/8994640/.

Fitzgerald, Edward. The Letters of Edward FitzGerald. Edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.

Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning: A Critical Biography. Blackwell, 1993.

Terhune, Alfred McKinley. The Life of Edward FitzGerald, Translator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Yale University Press, 1947.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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