The current conception of Browning’s reputation before his marriage is based to a large extent on that little book of pleasant and readable scholarship by Professor T. R. Lounsbury, The Early Literary Career of Robert Browning. Lounsbury attempted to show that Pauline (1833) and Paracelsus (1835) were surprisingly well received for first poems; that Strafford (1837), a bad play, chilled this initial enthusiasm; and that Sordello (1840), a foolishly obscure poem, killed all enthusiasm except in a few. He went on to assert that the effect of Sordello lasted for many years, and that thereafter there was an ignorance “almost incredible” among “the great majority of the most highly educated class,” even among those “distinguished in letters,” and that this ignorance did not begin to lift until the publication of The Ring and the Book (1868-69).
The standard picture of Browning’s early career, therefore, is an unhappy one. Professor DeVane follows this view in most essentials in his excellent Browning Handbook. He speaks of Sordello as follows: The publication of the poem ruined a promising reputation. Browning was in some respects the laughing stock of the literary clique in London, though men did not laugh in his face. He seems to have lost his hold upon his friends in the sophisticated world, such as Macready and Forster … He was plunged into that semi-obscurity which was to last for twenty-four years. He took up again his country pleasures, and his friends became the Camberwell set, “The Collo- quials,” made up of Alfred Domett, Joseph Arnould, Christopher Dowson, and others less well known. I do not mean to derogate these men. They were as staunch and good in their way as the London set, perhaps better, but they were not in the public eye, and their plumage was not so gay.
Later, in describing Browning’s estrangement from Macready and Forster after the production of A Blot in the ’Scutcheon in 1843, he says: “Perhaps these years were the most melancholy the poet ever spent—even those after his wife’s death were lightened by happy recollection
and dawning fame—for now the author, past his first youth, seemed baffled at every turn.”
The present essay attempts to qualify and supplement the accepted picture of the state of Browning’s fame in the years before his marriage by the consideration of material from sources not heretofore sufficiently emphasized. Lounsbury depended almost entirely on reviews. Because of their hostility or indifference to Browning he concluded that “the general public of even the highly educated”4 was hostile or indifferent. The present investigation should tend to show that this is to give too great importance to reviews, that taken by themselves they are not adequate sources of information, and that they are not the original impulses in establishing Browning’s fame.
I shall attempt to modify the well-known too gloomy picture of the influence of Sordello, and of Browning’s insignificance during the last years of his bachelorhood. Some writers mention a group of Browning admirers as mitigating with their devotion the despair of the most hopeless years, but the membership of this group has not been impressively enough delineated, and its importance has been underestimated.6 Simply to jot down a list of Browning admirers up to The Ring and the Book is to show that the dark picture of his position after Sordello is overdrawn. Browning’s prestige in London in the days before his marriage was not so great as that of Tennyson or Carlyle, or others; but he was a literary lion of sorts, and his influence was continually, if slowly, growing.
It is important to reiterate how closely knit and permeable was that London society in which Browning moved in these early days, how most of the distinguished people knew each other, or had common friends and acquaintances, how circle after circle met at some point so that the most artistocratic noble and the newest literary adventurer might occasionally rub shoulders, and need to make conversation together at a great soiree or dinner.6 There are discussed in this paper about twenty friends or acquaintances of the bachelor Browning who in some way advanced his fame. Most of these persons knew’ each other more or less intimately, and the w’hole group was interlocked by a series of intimate friendships. Six of them, indeed, were responsible for introducing Browning to most of the rest: Fox, Macready, Forster, Talfourd, Harriet Martineau, and Leigh Hunt. Before long Browning knew, and was knowrn with approval by, many of the important literary figures of the time, and not a few wrere eager to campaign in his favor. He wras continually at houses w’here the arbiters of literary fashion were making fashions; he was frequently discussed in small groups of influential literary people; this discussion slowly made its way into aristocratic society, and trickled down into non-literary society; more and more he became a topic of conversation wherever educated or polite persons gathered together. This set people to thinking about him, slowly increased the sale of his poems, and affected his fame.
The first of these friendships was with W. J. Fox (1786-1864), celebrated preacher, thrilling orator, journalist and politician, the acknowledged head of the Unitarians. He helped in the founding of the Westminster Review, and was editor of the Monthly Repository. From the very beginning of his knowledge of Browning he was admiring and helpful; he was especially important to Browning in giving him a start in the literary and journalistic world.
Browning’s childhood sweetheart, Eliza Flower, a wrard of Fox, made the first step in the friendship of the twTo by sending her guardian a copy of Browming’s Incondita.* In 1833 Browning wrote to him, recalling this earlier connection, and was successful in winning a favorable review for Pauline Fox gave Browning an introduction to Moxon, who was to publish many of Browming’s poems, helped to persuade Effingham Wilson to publish Paracelsus, and wrote friendly review’s of Pauline, Paracelsus, and Strafford. It seems likely that Sordello disappointed him, but he was enthusiastic about Dramatic Romances (1845). It was at Fox’s house about the time of Paracelsus that Browning met R. H. Home, who succeeded Fox as editor of the Monthly Repository, Macready the actor, and Miss Martineau.
Richard Ilengist Horne (1803-84), author of the very popular epic, Orion(1843),and close friend of Miss Barrett,continued to knowr Browning in a social and friendly way,16 and twice did Browning service in print in the period soon after Sordello when published praise was far more daring and more useful than it could ever be again. The first of these services was the friendly review in the Church of England Quarterly Review for October 1842, discussed by Professor Lounsbury. The second was the publication of Browning’s portrait, and the essay, “Robert Browning and J. W. Marston,” in A New Spirit oj the Age (1844).
In this book Browning takes his place among the other well-known figures of the inner literary circles of the time. Horne’s idea was that Browning had had an unusually cordial reception for Paracelsus, that the immediate acting of Strafford was “an event quite unprecedented on the modern stage,” although the play did not advance Browning’s reputation, and that although the adverse criticism with which Sordello was greeted is understandable, nevertheless “the poem has certainly never been fairly estimated.” Horne paid Browning the high compliment of working to understand Sordello, and in his refreshing analysis and critique of that poem he gives evidence of having really done so:
As to the poetry of “Sordello” … we think it abounds with beauties . . . Containing, as it does, so many passages of the finest poetry, no manner of doubt can exist but that “Sordello” has been treated with great injustice. It has been condemned in terms that would lead one to suppose there was nothing intelligible throughout the whole poem. We have shown its defects in detail, and we have also shown that it has some of the highest beauties . . . Here and there may be found passages equal to the finest things that were ever written. Browning’s friend, Joseph Arnould, said of this essay that Horne had done Browning “good service” in A New Spirit of the Age, that “me- nagerie of modern lions and lionesses.”
Of great value was Fox’s introduction of Browning to W. C. Macready (1793-1873), the famous actor. Macready was not unprepared for this meeting, for he had just read with pleasure and deep admiration two reviews of Paracelsus, one of which was by his friend, John Forster. He was very much attracted to Browning at once. Soon after he hastened to read through the whole of Paracelsus, and decided that the writer could “scarcely fail to be a leading spirit of his time.” At the end of December, 1835, he took the initiative in laying the foundations of friendship by inviting Browning to a house-party. Browning delighted all those present with his charm, including John Forster, whom he met here for the first time.
Thereafter, until 1843, there are constant refer- ences in Macready’s Diaries to calls from Browning, alone, or in the company of Forster, Dickens, Maclise, Horne, Bulwer, Procter, or Talfourd;* and Macready writes of how his “gentle manners always make his presence acceptable.” How much Macready valued this friendship may be seen in his reaction to praise that Browning gave to his acting in 1836: “It was a tribute which remunerated me from the annoyances and cares of years: it was one of the very highest, may I not say the highest, honour I have through life received.”
The story of Browning’s plays, and of how they finally led to a break with Macready, has been told too frequently to need repetition i detail. It is of interest here inasmuch as it shows the real depth of Macready’s admiration and affection for Browning. It took six years (1837-43) finally to break the strong bonds of friendship that held the two men together. And one must bear in mind that through these six years Macready’s naturally irritable and passionate nature was exac- erbated by constant financial worry, that he worked wholeheartedly and generously to make the plays succeed even though convinced of their ultimate failure, that he consciously tried to behave as a warm, genuine, and serviceable friend toward Browning, and that on the whole he appears in a better light than does Browning.
At first reading in 1836 Macready was delighted with Strafford, but after the performance in May, 1837, he told Browning “that the play was a grand escape, and that he ought to regard it only as such, a mere step to that fame which his talents must procure him.” In September, 1839, he read King Victor and King Charles in manuscript and found it “a great mistake.” Sordello, which was published in March, 1840, and The Return of the Druses, which Macready read in manuscript in August, 1840, so disappointed him that he wrote, “with the deepest concern I yield to the belief that he will never write again—to any purpose,” and later “I fear he is forever gone.”
Despite this lessening of faith, Macready showed no inclination to desert Browning. In August, 1840, he gave Browning a loyal and honest warning about Sordello and the plays, “expressing myself most anxious, as I am, that he should justify the expectations formed of him, but that he could not do so by placing himself in opposition to the world.” He continued to receive him cordially, and to entertain him, on one occasion in 1842 at a brilliant evening party, at which were present knights and ladies, famous artists and literary figures, such as Edwin Landseer and Maclise, the Marstons and the Procters, Carlyle, Forster, Kenyon, and others. His loyalty was so deeply founded and generous, in fact, that despite his own overwhelming domestic and financial troubles, he consented to consider A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, written to embody the good advice that Macready had given Browning in their long discussions of Browning’s former plays.
The unfortunate struggle over this play raged from September 26, 1841 to February 11, 1843,40 the date of the opening, and when it was over the intimacy between the two also was at an end.41 Macready wrote of Browning as “the puppy!” Even after this they did not remain in utter enmity, for in 1850 Browning sent “a sort of regretful message” to Macready, and on several occasions after Browning’s marriage they came together with the cor- diality or the pathos that befits old friends.
But more important than all this, Macready rendered services that continued to be fruitful to Browning’s fame long after the two men had ceased to be intimate. He introduced Browning to the world and mys- teries of the theatre, and to his own circle. It was profitable to Browning for one of the greatest and most popular actors of the day to take the leading part in his play before a crowded house. In the days of his enthusiasm Macready was an impassioned proselytizer. Lady Pollock describes his zeal after she admitted that she had not read Paracelsus:
He lifted his eyebrows; he muttered expressions of wonder; he once or twice said, “Oh. good God!” He took a turn or two up and down the room, and then said, “I really am quite at a loss; I cannot understand it.” I pleaded the claims of the babies, they left me little time, etc. To which he replied: “Hand over the babies to the nurse, and read Paracelsus.”
By such incidents as these Browning’s fame was being increased. The friendship of Harriet Martineau (1802-76) Browning owed to the good offices of both Fox and Macready. Macready first introduced her to Browning’s poetry by lending Paracelsus to her; for the first time in her life she “passed a whole night without sleeping a wink.” She then sought out his acquaintance, meeting him not long after at the house of Fox,47 their common friend. She was then at the height of her great fame as a very successful writer and popularizer of knowledge, and was being entertained with astonishing enthusiasm in all kinds of intellectual and aristocratic circles.