Studies of a Biographer/The Browning Letters
THE BROWNING LETTERS
The publication of the Browning correspondence naturally calls attention to a troublesome section in the code of literary morality: the section, that is, which deals with the claims of men of genius to posthumous privacy. The authorised version is often taken to be that we should refrain from making public anything which a man would have jealously guarded from publicity in his lifetime. It is easy to denounce the intrusion of the 'many-headed beast' and to speak as though death made no difference in the sanctity of the domestic sphere. Nobody would print his own love-letters while he is alive, and therefore nobody should print them when he has ceased to live. That inference would take us far, and, if it were admitted to be the law, would most certainly have awkward consequences. We may surely be allowed, without offence, to look even into some love-secrets of men and women who can no longer be wounded by our (let us hope) respectful and sympathetic interest. If we did not know something, say, of old Johnson's love for his Tetty, we should be imperfectly aware of the sweetest element of his character; though we should have justified his roughest retort if we had asked impertinent questions in his lifetime. I confess, indeed, that I am rather suspicious of commonplace morality on such matters. It easy and flattering to one's vanity to perch oneself upon a good round maxim which everybody will approve in theory, and which, as we are also quite aware, nobody will force us to apply in practice. However gravely we may speak, we shall read the next indiscreet revelation, and our enjoyment will only have the keener edge from our affectation of prudery. We can atone for our enjoyment of contraband goods by vigorously abusing the smuggler. And then the suspicion intrudes that in professing to pitch our standard so high, we are not really preaching sound morality. The danger strikes one especially in connection with Browning. One of his favourite themes is the conflict between the conventional code, which is perfectly plausible and perhaps correct in the average case, with the highest law which is recognised by the superior nature. A priest ought not, as a rule, to help a married woman to run away from her husband; but the Ring and the Book gives the exceptional case in which, by breaking the rule, a man may show the truest nobility of character. And so, perhaps, it may be urged that, even assuming the advantages of reticence in general, there are cases in which it may cover a paltry regard for conventional propriety. When we have a man and a woman of genius, may it not be good for the world to know, even in the fullest detail, how they loved and revealed their love to each other, and how the love ennobled their lives and their work? The case, it might be added, is too rare to be drawn into a precedent. Nobody will learn much from the flirtations of the ordinary human being, or even of the second rank of ephemeral celebrities. But when we have to do with so unique a case—with a man of undisputed pre-eminence in his art and a woman worthy of him—must it not be good for us to watch every heart-beat, and follow the most minute developments of the great passion of their lives?
Have we not precedents which show that the system is inevitable, and, moreover, that it has led to some very desirable results? The best books to read, as somebody has remarked upon such an occasion, are the books that ought never to have been written. In Shakespeare's time there was nobody to investigate the Ann Hathaway business, or to ask what was implied by the famous 'second-best bed.' If there had been, we might have been spared some of the wild hypotheses which fill the void of authentic history. The inquisitorial system began, I take it, in England in the days of Queen Anne. Curll, as Arbuthnot told Pope, added a new terror to death. That prototype of piratical booksellers procured and published some of Pope's early letters; and Pope found that the injury had its advantages. He managed to get more of his letters 'stolen' and published by prompting the theft himself; and, while he exhibited his modesty by protesting against the outrage, he had also the pleasure of knowing that 'the nation'—as Johnson puts it—'was filled with the praises of his candour, tenderness, and benevolence, the purity of his purposes, and the fidelity of his friendship.' That is a typical case: the morbidly sensitive poet, induced to connive at (or, in his case, to contrive) the violation of his rights to privacy, and driven to whole series of mean intrigues by the pleasure of turning himself inside out for public inspection. Since his time we have had similar exhibitions on a larger scale. Rousseau said that he was making a new experiment, and one which would have no imitators, by exhibiting a man as he really was, and that man himself. The exhibition, it is generally agreed, was not altogether edifying; but it is also agreed that it was singularly fascinating. It was certainly a step beyond Pope. To call upon mankind to admire your virtues, and even to manufacture sham virtues for the purpose, is an intelligible aim, but it amounted to a discovery when your vices and your meannesses were employed for the same purpose. It is easy enough to preach upon the morality of the criminals; it would be proper to add in a pulpit that they were not promoting the welfare of their souls by such transactions. But, then, can we honestly say when we are out of the pulpit, that we wish that they had not done it? Pope's contrivances at least added to our literature one of the most interesting collections of correspondence in the language; a series of letters which puts us face to face with some of the most brilliant of our writers, and enables us to realise as nothing else can do the strength and the weakness, the shrewdness and the hypocrisy, of the great lights of the time. Granting that Pope should not himself have published, and certainly that he should not have falsified, the documents, can we deny that they are documents of the highest interest? Would we have burnt them if the alternative had been possible? In speaking of Rousseau, the only danger is that of exaggerating the importance of his work. To suppress his writings would have been to suppress the fullest utterance of the contemporary spirit; and, whether that spirit was of heaven or hell, or a strange mixture of both, its revelation to itself and us was surely desirable. Rousseau's prophecy that he would have no followers in his enterprise has hardly been fulfilled, unless in the sense that no one has been quite so reckless in self-exposure. Byron is not the only person who has exhibited to Europe the 'pageant of a bleeding heart,' and it need not be argued that the practice is often injurious to the simplicity and dignity of the performer. Even so, the world may be, on the whole, the gainer. And, if we can get rid of the degrading part of the performance, the complicity of the man exposed in his own exposure, may we not have the benefit without paying such a price? It is a natural, and surely an excusable, desire which prompts us to learn something more of the character of the great men who have stirred the thoughts and directed the passions of the race. A great writer, it is said, reveals the best part of himself in his works. But the longing for a more direct vision of the man behind the book, of the struggles by which he won his way to his successes, of the strength and the weaknesses by which he was helped and hindered, facilitates a clear appreciation of the works themselves. Even the greatest literary achievement becomes 'gilt o'er dusted,' and the best way of restoring is to watch in imagination the living hand which wrought it. Some appreciation of that truth must be allowed to the generations of Dryasdusts who have sought even from the driest receptacles—of which Carlyle complained so bitterly—to put together, if not a living figure, at least a framework to which we can adapt our more or less fanciful pictures. If the need is felt where the means of supply are so limited, can we blame the same sort of curiosity when it is applied to our near contemporaries? The interviewer, so his victims report, is apt to be a nuisance, impertinent and intrusive. But can we condemn him unreservedly? Is there not something legitimate in the demand? Suppose him to speak the truth, what harm can he be really doing? He ought not, it may be suggested, to reveal a great man's infirmities. What is it to us if Coleridge took opium? The drug had, no doubt, some share in producing Kubla Khan; but may we not enjoy the product without considering the physiological conditions which were implied? The answer is obvious. A man's infirmities are, after all, part of him; they cannot be put aside like his coat or his shoes; and very often they suggest the only excuse for his shortcomings. To compare the estimate of Coleridge's genius formed by his contemporaries with his actual output of work achieved, to judge of the influence which he exercised in philosophy by his fragmentary attempts at possible prolegomena to a system, is to set oneself an insoluble problem, unless we know the facts. He cannot be fairly judged until we know how his astonishing powers were hampered by a weakness which still left him both lovable and capable of stimulating other intellects. The life, no doubt, may be suppressed altogether; but to take only a bit of it, and such a bit as his friends might think edifying, is to turn the whole story into a hopeless conundrum. The demand for such knowledge has been increased by modern scientific tendencies. The man of science is constantly demanding a closer and wider intimacy with facts. No fact can be so small or repulsive that it may not be of use in testing or suggesting theory. The historian follows suit. He finds that in the masses of records which were neglected by an earlier generation there are materials for reconstructing history at large. By elaborate researches into what passed for mere rubbish-heaps, he can discover facts essential to an intelligent appreciation of social and intellectual development. What was once the pursuit of eccentric antiquaries, animated by an unreasoning love of curiosities, becomes worthy of the keenest intellects searching for light in the dark foundations of things. A fact, simply as a fact, becomes sacred in the eyes of such inquirers. It may not be of interest in itself; but no one can tell what part it may not play incidentally in clearing up some general principle. Historians of literature catch the contagion, and employ themselves in worrying out minute dates and infinitesimal bibliographical facts with an industry which, let us hope, will have its reward. Certainly it is not for one who has had anything to do with biographical inquiries to throw cold water upon such a spirit, or to deny that it helps an intelligent study of literature.
If so, why may we not apply the same method to contemporaries as soon as we can do so without hurting the feelings of survivors? Undoubtedly there are precautions to be observed. Froude's performance in regard to Carlyle has furnished a leading case. It is, however, necessary to remark the precise nature of the offence. Froude, as I am fully convinced, meant to do honour to his old prophet. He took himself to be following the principle which Boswell avowed when protests were made against his revelations of Johnson's foibles. His lion, he said, should not be made into a cat for anybody. He would not pare the lion's claws or lessen the ferocity of his growl. Froude thought that Carlyle deserved a portrait in the manner of Rembrandt, vivid and full of character, with due depth of shadow to throw out the intensity of the lights. The aim, I take it, was clearly right. That was precisely what a biographer ought to do. It is another question whether the means were justifiable. He is accused of using Carlyle's love-letters without due authority, and, moreover, of misreading them. But suppose, for I am not arguing the question of Froude's morality, that he had given an accurate version of the facts? Had he told the story as it really happened, and that story one essentially honourable to both of the persons concerned, would he not have rendered us a service? Whether he was right in over-riding Carlyle's wishes is, of course, a question; but were the wishes themselves justifiable? Was it not a mistake to desire the suppression of the story when it could be told without hurting the feelings of the living? Feeling, as every one must, the indecency of giving publicity to such documents for a time, does there not come a day when the privilege of privacy should disappear? If such letters had been found throwing light upon Cromwell's youth, would not Carlyle have published them without hesitation? Sir William Temple's love-letters of that date were published a few years ago, and nobody, I fancy, complained of any violation of secrecy. At what point does the obligation cease? How are we to settle this point of casuistry? Shall we say that letters should be private for a generation or a century: or admit rather that, as soon as there is no living person to be affected, a full revelation is permissible and desirable?
In the case of the Browning letters there is happily no question of any breach of confidence. Browning left them with full permission to his son to do as he pleased with them. Whether the publication was judicious or otherwise, it was sufficiently authorised by the person most interested. In the letters themselves, there is an incidental discussion of a similar point. Miss Barrett had sent to Browning a letter in which Miss Martineau had described Wordsworth. Browning remarks in reference to the burning of some other correspondence that you may burn anybody's "real letters,' they 'move and live … in a self-imposed circle limiting the experience of two persons only.' And he proceeds to argue, with characteristic superabundance of metaphor, that the presence of a third person 'lets in a whole tract of country on the originally enclosed spot,' so that the 'whole significance is lost at once.' 'Clever writing,' on the other hand, such as Miss Martineau's, gives only such an impression as is intelligible to the world at large. An intimate dialogue, if I understand him, altogether loses its character when there is a listener; but Miss Martineau's descriptions give only the observations open to any indifferent bystander. Miss Barrett, in replying, goes further. She values letters, she says, as the 'most vital part of biography.' She is astonished that any rational human being should 'put his foot on the traditions of his kind in this particular class.' We should lose, for example, such a delightful book as Voltaire's correspondence. She could enjoy 'book after book of such reading.' Were we to accept Miss Martineau's principle (apparently that such letters might be circulated in manuscript, but never printed) 'death would be deader henceforth.' We ought all to be ready to say that if the secrets of our daily lives and inner souls may instruct other sorrowing souls, let them be open to men hereafter as they are to God now. Dust to dust, and soul secrets to humanity.' And she proceeds to say that, though she shrinks 'from the idea of publicity on any terms,' and would destroy papers of 'her own, sacred to her for personal reasons,' she would not 'call this natural weakness a virtue,' or justify it as a general maxim for public acceptance. If 'soul secrets' belong to humanity, if we are all entitled to look into the most intimate experiences of all our predecessors, it appears that no line can be drawn. Anything and everything is public property; and, after our death, the world is to be allowed to listen to whatever we might have been required to say in the confessional. The natural shrinking is, if not a sin, a regrettable weakness. That, if granted, is a full justification by anticipation of the publicity bestowed upon these letters. If a woman, so exquisitely sensitive, condemns herself for shrinking from a revelation of her soul secrets, how is an outsider to say that she was wrong?
Yet, in spite of the authority, which no doubt justifies the son's action, and of the argument which I fully admit to have its force, I have some hesitation as to the conclusion. I felt unpleasantly like an unjustifiable eavesdropper while reading these letters, and I cannot at once admit that the feeling was simply erroneous, or due to the illusion that the writers of letters so full of life must still be living. Can I justify that instinctive repulsion, or justify it without falling into the mere common-places of respectable morality? In some respects there is obviously no room for complaint. There is no question of a revelation of anything painful to survivors or discreditable to the writers. The letters can only confirm whatever judgment we have already formed of the depth and tenderness of character of Browning and his wife. They are an ideal pair of lovers. The question comes up several times in these volumes whether it be possible for poets to be good husbands and wives. Mrs. Browning's friends seem to have been inclined to drop little cynical maxims. They think marriage in general is a failure; that the more love there is at starting the less there will be afterwards; and that poets, in particular, are apt to make very bad husbands. A certain number of precedents might be produced in favour of the last doctrine; but these letters prove conclusively that if too often verified it is not necessarily true. Probably one's first reflection is that the love of poets is in substance remarkably like the love of other people; and that is only the other side of the obvious remark that even ordinary people are poets in so far as they are lovers. The difference is that we who are inarticulate owe to the poet the full expression of all that gives the truest happiness and beauty to our commonplace lives. Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese are a concentrated utterance of what she says in prose in these letters; and the letters show how the poetic sentiment brightened every little prosaic detail in the brief drama of the courtship. The feeling on both sides is so pure and intense that every letter increases our affection for the writers. And, in a sense, the sentiment is as true as it is strong and tender. I say 'in a sense,' for I certainly do not mean to affirm that the opinions expressed are to be taken as correct. Undoubtedly there are illusions—illusions, perhaps, as to each other's unique excellence and the intrinsic value of certain poems. But the illusions, whatever they may be, and one could not wish them to be less, do not distort the perception of the essential facts. In other cases, we are too often called upon to forgive grave errors, to drop, for the moment perhaps, one or two of the Ten Commandments, in sheer admiration of the strength of passion which has leapt very useful barriers. But here we are in the happy position of sympathising with a devotion which only strengthens the instinctive and instantaneous perception of what is right and becoming.
There seems at starting to be a little danger of the predominance of the author over the human being. There are certain references to 'art being a jealous God,' and demanding the whole man and woman, suggesting a possibility of a kind of cant which always becomes absurd as soon as its language is old-fashioned. The 'artist,' even in those days when we were all (as our posterity tells us) so stupid, liked to live in a little esoteric world and celebrate his mysteries with due solemnity, to look out with contempt upon the average Philistine (though the phrase was not yet popularised), and receive the homage of appreciative Americans and the mild lady-authors who still thought literary ambition a rather audacious breach of the proprieties. There is mention in one place of an English nobleman who ventured to study art at Rome in a blouse and a 'flapped hat.' We, the devotees of art, are to see how superior he was to his fellows who were playing at the feudal baron on their estates, or perhaps even superintending a dog-fight in St. Giles'. There is 'something fascinating,' says Miss Barrett, in that 'Bohemian way of living,' and we are invited to wish well to this gallant defiance of British prejudice. There can be no doubt that painting is a more creditable occupation than dog-fighting, though it seems a little unfair to suggest such an unpleasant amusement as the typical alternative. Still, a man may attend a studio in a blouse without being a superior being, and I somehow feel as if that little literary and artistic world of 1845 had standards of excellence before which I cannot bow the knee unreservedly. Perhaps it is partly because the secondary luminaries on this stage, Miss Mitford and Mrs. Jameson, and (Orion) Home and Mr. Kenyon though they had great merits are already fading into comparative oblivion, and it requires an effort to allow for the effect of perspective. But it is a charm of these letters that this element of the situation affects only the earlier letters. Browning and Miss Barrett began by mutual appreciation as authors, and, of course, have to start upon the common platform of literary communication. A little literary talk about Æschylus and the relations of northern and Italian poets, and the past and intended works of the correspondents is, of course, inevitable, and certainly not uninteresting. But Browning very soon discovers the unsatisfactory nature of mere literary work, and explains his view by one of his characteristic parallel cases out of Vivian Grey. A gentleman in that novel is about to interrupt the development of the story by reading some 'brief remarks upon the characteristics of the Mœso-Gothic literature.' The author, however, upon consideration, judiciously omits the remarks, as you find upon turning the page. You will ask, says Browning, what this 'parallel case' means; and Miss Barrett admits that he does talk 'a little like a sphinx/ Browning proceeds to 'explain' in his next. The explanation immediately lands him in a 'slough of similes,' out of which he has to struggle, 'never mind with what dislocation of ankles.' He only escapes to fall into other similes and illustrations of his meanings, and ends by expressing his hope that he has 'cleared up all the difficulty' and put things quite straight. Undoubtedly he had, to Miss Barrett's apprehension, though I confess that my own intellect remains a little befogged.
The general upshot, however, is sufficiently clear. Browning, one fancies, takes refuge in his parallel cases—his favourite device in poetical arguments—because he is still a little embarrassed in writing to a lady whom he had not yet seen. But he wishes to get out of the region of small talk, even in the exalted form of literary criticism, and to speak to her of more vitally interesting matters. And before long we find both of them anxious to repudiate the literary sentiment as anything but the mere vehicle for the purely personal passion. Browning protests that his admiration of Miss Barrett as an author is entirely different from his love of herself. He held his peace about her poetry till he had a sense of 'purely personal obligation,' and, if she were never to write another line, or speak another 'intelligible word,' he would love her not less but more. His 'whole life is wound up and down and over her.' And she, though she loves his poetry, agrees that it is not 'the flower of his nature.' That flower is something nameless and mystical. She used to fancy that she could see him in his poems; but then 'broken sights and forms look strange and unlike' when she 'stands by the complete idea.' She only wishes that he would reveal his personality more clearly by uttering himself directly without the dramatic apparatus which is apt to puzzle the less intelligent readers. And here one must apologise for quoting scraps of sentences which seem to lose their force and grace when detached from the context. Browning to the end has the odd tendency to put things in a quaint and tortuous fashion, which is represented by the 'put-case' of his later poems. But no love-letters since the days of Heloisa could be more glowing with a devotion which one can only regard with reverence. Both of them have, of course, a pretext for exerting their ingenuity in that old problem which is tiresome in ethical philosophers, but infinitely delightful between a pair of lovers. Is not 'altruism' a refined self-love? If I am so devoted to some one else that his happiness becomes my happiness, am I not really selfish even when I am sacrificing myself to him? That suggests an infinite variety of tender caressing 'quibbles.' In loving him, as Miss Barrett protests, she never thought of being happy through him; his good was all her idea of good. That is unmistakably true, but then it is equally obvious that his own happiness necessarily implies her happiness, and her logic—if logic were really concerned—would be a little difficult to untwist. Or, again, there is, as Browning observes, a contest of generosity. Each wishes to be grateful for the other's kindnesses; but then, from the other's point of view, the kindness is so obviously a matter of course that gratitude is a solecism. You, says each, are my ideal of perfection, and to have an ideal of perfection implies power of appreciating real excellence. Titania could not love Bottom in her sober senses, and the lover must admit, even by worshipping her, that he is considerably superior to Bottom. Browning, in fact, sums up the dilemma in one of his later letters by roundly declaring that 'there is no love but from beneath, far beneath—that is the law of its nature.' But then, as he entirely believes in her love for him, the remark would naturally be made by the proverbial Senior Wrangler that each of two objects cannot be lower than the other. Miss Barrett, in fact, takes the only possible solution when she declares that love should have no reason or be its own reason. The motive, she reports herself to have said, should be in the feeling itself, and not in the object of it; and the affection which could throw itself out 'on an idiot with a goitre would be more admirable than Abelard's!' Some awkward deductions might follow from that principle too, but we can, as enlightened lookers-on, supply some very obvious reasons, not being bound to take either side in the play of ostensible argument, which is, in fact, merely one way of expressing entire mutual devotion and what Browning once calls agreement to the point of 'tremblingly exquisite exactness.'
It would appear that on the whole, though Browning never admits it, Miss Barrett succeeds best in getting into the attitude of a worshipper. The situation naturally implies it. Brought up, as she says, in a kind of conventual seclusion, looking at the world mainly through books, and with her sensibilities stimulated by her invalid life, she was even abnormally feminine, and it is easy to understand why, as she often says, his love for her appeared to her as a 'miracle,' a sure support coming beyond all reasonable expectation, and lifting her into life and happiness. From the very first her instinct tells her to put absolute trust in Browning's honour and generosity. That the instinct was entirely justified by the facts does not prove that it was infallible. It would be easy to speculate upon the results which might have followed, had Browning shared the weaknesses of some great poets—Coleridge or Shelley, for example; whether she might not have become the heroine of a tragedy, had she trusted to a man, selfish or simply weak, or valuing her enthusiasm only so far as it was a pleasant offering of incense upon the altar of his genius. That Miss Barrett was not incapable of illusions seems to be clear from her view of that wonderful person, her father. No one, as she assures Browning, had a heart 'loyaller, and purer, and more compelling to gratitude and reverence, than his,' as she sees it. The proof is remarkable. The brother whom she especially loved had been staying with her at Torquay by her especial request, and in spite of the father's disapproval. While they were there, the brother took a boat and was accidentally drowned, and the father was so 'generous and forbearing' as never once to tell her that it was her fault. That must have been a tempting remark to bestow upon a heart-broken daughter; and would no doubt have been a relief to his feelings. Meanwhile he has the trifling weakness of holding that he rules by divine right; and is entitled to suppress as altogether disgusting and anomalous monstrosities any love affairs of his children. If the daughters confess to such criminal proceedings, he makes scenes which send one of them into hysterics and another into a dead faint. He would rather see Elizabeth dead at his feet, she admits, than consent to her acceptance of Browning. Since the days of Clarissa Harlowe there never was such a preposterous family despot. Miss Barrett, however, believes sincerely, and expects her lover to believe, both that the old gentleman is not stone, and that he is immovable as a stone. He has, as she most undeniably puts it, a 'very peculiar nature,' of which Browning, one suspects, would have been able to make a very effective dramatic sketch. He resolves, however, that he will always see these things with her eyes, and will never say anything to give her pain. He has, indeed, to say, though with characteristically tortuous phrases, that the tyranny is intolerable, and that she is not to sacrifice herself to the tyrant. As she was happily clear upon that point, he is able to maintain a reticence which is not less honourable than his utterance. I fancy that, in the one or two passages in the letters in which something like a controversy arises, Browning is really giving vent to an accumulated desire for plain-speaking, which he would have liked to discharge upon the head of Mr. Barrett. He defends duelling and capital punishment with a vigour that gives her some pain, and causes her to drop the subject; and he insists upon the objections to her paying ransom to the dog-stealers who had appropriated her favourite Flush. There is just a momentary glimpse of the shrewd man of the world opposing amiable sentimentalism. The topics were harmless, as the practical danger of Browning fighting a duel was of the minutest, and as he made sure that the dog-stealers had got their money before he entered his protest. If Mr. Barrett's behaviour had been discussable with the same frankness, Browning would have relieved his feelings at the cost of inflicting real suffering upon his beloved. He shows, however, perfect self-restraint in that matter, and throughout maintains the most unimpeachable attitude. He had the reward which he deserved; and one of the great charms in the letters is the gradual brightening of Miss Barrett's life—the wakening to real, vivid happiness of the poor, broken, tremulous invalid who is revealed in the opening passages. A little sign of excessive sensibility remains in her superfluous apologies for apparently 'light words'; for phrases in which she has permitted herself to speak as though it were conceivable that he might some day see through some of his illusions about her, or that he might doubt her readiness to agree to all his plans; phrases in which a duller insight than Browning's might read clearly enough only an appeal for delightful utterances of absolute confidence. It is 'wonderful to me,' so she sums up the situation, 'to look back on my life and my old philosophy of life, made of the necessities of sorrow and the resolution to attain to something better than a perpetual moaning and complaint—to that state of neutralised emotion to which I did attain—that serenity which meant the failure of hope! Can I look back to such things and not thank you next to God? For you, having the power to stoop and having the will, is it not worthy of thanks? So I thank you and love you, and shall always, however it may be hereafter.' Browning could, no doubt, believe with equal sincerity that his cause for gratitude was not less; and one may say that even he could not speak too strongly—or strongly enough—of the blessing which had come to him. Yet, to the outsider, the 'miraculous' nature of the reward is more palpable in her case. The prison doors were thrown open for her beyond reasonable expectation; whereas he, as we must admit, had, in any case, a noble though not so beautiful a career open to him independently.
I have not attempted to do more than recall what must be obvious to all readers of the letters. I only wish to explain the feeling which, as I know, is shared by more competent readers than I can profess to be. They too have had their scruples vanquished by the remarkable revelation of beautiful character. The sense that so intimate a set of letters should not be laid bare to the public has been gradually overcome by the perception of their singular charm. And, in fact, one conclusion seems to be undeniable. Mr. Browning tells us in his preface that he had either to destroy these letters or to permit their publication. It does not appear to be self-evident that no third course was open; but if we take that for granted, his decision was unimpeachable. Undoubtedly it would have been a wrong to the memory of his parents, had the letters been suppressed. We should have lost a story which is in some ways more charming and impressive than any of his poetry. People who met Browning occasionally accepted the commonplace doctrine that the poet and the man may be wholly different persons. Browning, that is, could talk like a brilliant man of the world, and the commonplace person could infer that he did not possess the feelings which he did not care to exhibit at a dinner-party. It was not difficult to discover that such a remark showed the superficiality of the observer, not the absence of the underlying qualities. These letters, at any rate, demonstrate to the dullest that the intensity of passion which makes the poet was equally present in the man. It is worth our while to have such a demonstration to recognise the depth and purity of the sources from which genuine poetry springs, even at the price of some shock to our sense of decorum. The only question is, whether the same result might not have been achieved with a less sweeping revelation. I will not venture to express any distinct opinion, because I do not quite see the force of Mr. Browning's dilemma; but I will suggest a consideration or two which seem to me to be relevant.
The world at large, as Miss Barrett says, has a right to the 'soul secrets' of eminent people. Is that true? In a sense, one may fully accept the doctrine. It is well to know the truth about the men and women who have left us intellectual legacies; it is well, even if the truth be not, as in this case it certainly is, altogether gratifying. Every such life has what we call its 'lesson,' and one not the less instructive if the career implies some of the worst human qualities. Pope could lie enormously, and Burns could be decidedly coarse, and Byron was not a pattern of domestic excellence. I should wish the essence of the character to be revealed to me in every case; and should be profoundly interested by the truth, though I might not extract a definite moral or learn what is called a lesson. But, I think, there is a certain confusion between the demand for truth which is perfectly justified, and the demand for all the knowledge which has any bearing whatever upon the history of the person concerned. There are, after all, a great many facts of which one may as well be ignorant. They are irrelevant, and nobody would be the worse if they went into the waste-paper basket. It does not follow that because I want fact not fiction I therefore want all the facts, big and small; the poet's washing-bills, as well as his early drafts of great works. There are purposes, indeed, for which it is necessary to preserve everything that can be known. The scientific habit of mind demands, as I have said, the preservation of things in general, because some day anything may have its uses; the lawyer may feel bound to investigate every conceivable tittle of evidence, however minute the chance of its having any relevance; a biographer may be bound to act upon this principle in his investigations, and to follow out the ramifications of his hero's career as though he were engaged in the presumptuous attempt to find out everything about the Dreyfus case. But then he need not present the whole mass to the world. That might be desirable if the 'soul secrets' corresponded to the discovery of a scientific formula in psychology, if it were a question of finding new laws of human nature comparable to laws of chemistry or electricity. But such secrets are altogether beyond our powers. We do not study the lives of great men as scientific psychologists, but in order to have a vivid presentation of some interesting type of character. That may be stimulating, elevating, or saddening; but it is a question of art, not of science; of giving the concentrated personal essence of the mind, not of keeping up the greatest possible mass of details. So far from giving all details, no detail should be admitted which does not more or less directly contribute to heighten the effect of a lifelike portraiture. The antiquary's delight in gathering together all possible scraps and fragments is no doubt pardonable, and a harmless recreation in its way, though when I see the method applied to contemporaries, I am tempted to think that it implies less genuine admiration than a desire to prove that the admiration is genuine. The lover cherishes every scrap that reminds him of his mistress, and you therefore try to convince yourself that you are a lover by gathering scraps, though perhaps really caring for nothing else. There comes to be competition among the idolaters who collect relics of a great man, which proves the spread, not of a real appreciation, but of the knowledge that appreciation is the correct thing. A poet, I fancy, has often most worthy adherents when the adherents are few, and the spread of his fame implies the growth of sham sentiments.
The bad results of this more or less factitious enthusiasm are too familiar to be insisted upon. Everybody agrees that the interviewer, contemporary or posthumous, is capable of becoming an intolerable nuisance, and is a specific for the encouragement of morbid tendencies in poets. Literature is, in all cases, a demoralising occupation, though some people can resist its evil influences. It is demoralising because success implies publicity. A poet has to turn himself inside out by the very conditions of his art, and suffers from the incessant stimulants applied to his self-consciousness. The temptation is inevitable, and is, of course, the stronger and the more corrupting as the right to satisfy a vulgar curiosity is more generally admitted. Formerly, if a man wanted to talk about himself, he wrote an autobiography to be published posthumously, and there was therefore some safeguard, in so far as he was not to be directly conscious of the effect produced. Now, the autobiography is being superseded by the 'reminiscences,' in which every one is invited to explain what a genial and charming creature he is; how thoroughly he appreciates his contemporaries, and how superior he is to any desire for popular praise. If reminiscing is not a name for hypocritical attitudinising, it shows, as I am glad to believe, what charming and excellent people many of our contemporaries still are, in spite of all the corrupting influences to which they are exposed.
The difficulty about the Browning letters is, I think, this: whether, in spite of their own undeniable merits, they will not set a precedent eminently likely to be abused. They may be justified as exceptional. The case is one of those in which the total result is so impressive and edifying that the ordinary rule may be disregarded. Unfortunately, when a precedent is set, there is no way of limiting the application to be made of it. Everybody is apt to be exceptional in his own eyes and in the eyes of his nearest relatives; and one fears that the habit of turning out the most private receptacles will be encouraged without reason by the success of this particular performance. I am, I must frankly confess, not equal to solving this point of casuistry. Like other such problems, it cannot be solved by any distinct rule; and all that one can do is to recognise the possibility of some bad consequences and reserve a right to condemn the next follower. There is, indeed, one other question. Admitting fully that the story ought to be told, that we had a right to be aware of this ennobling element in the lives of two such persons, was it really necessary that the whole correspondence should be published or the whole destroyed? I cannot help fancying that some one might have been found—though, no doubt, the task would have required very exceptional tact and insight—who could have given the truth without publishing the correspondence in mass. Undoubtedly it would have been necessary to use the words of the writers and to publish some of the letters completely. But the sense of impropriety which besets one every now and then in reading—that uncomfortable suspicion that one is, after all, an eavesdropper—is purely due to the following all the little ins and outs through so long a correspondence, and the feeling that one is looking over the shoulders of the writers at a moment when they would certainly have shown the door to an intruder. I fancy that by confining the revelation to what was strictly necessary to reveal the essence of the situation, and by so showing a scrupulous regard for the consideration which makes for reticence, the book might have been equally and even more impressive, and the danger of setting a precedent diminished. But I do not know the facts well enough to be enabled to do more than throw out a suggestion, which, like most suggestions, is too late to be of any use.
- Perhaps I may be permitted to give a small reminiscence. I happened to meet Browning at a moment of great interest to me. I knew little of him then, and had rather taken him at the valuation indicated above. He spoke a few words, showing such tenderness, insight, and sympathy, that I have never forgotten his kindness; and from that time knew him for what he was. I cannot say more; but I say so much by way of expressing my gratitude.