David Loth's The Brownings: A Victorian Idyll (copyright 1929) concludes with some comments about RB's later years --- his personality, his physical vigor, his relationship with women, his scholarship, and his optimism --- plus remarks on the "Browning Societies" which sprang up at that time and then withered.

from Chapter 18, concerning The Ring and the Book:

It was a literary shibboleth just then that no man could write sincerely, convincingly, of any character without partaking to a considerable degree of that character's nature. Yet how, the poor puzzled devotees of this creed demanded, could Browning partake of so many and such diverse natures? Granted their premises, the obvious deduction was that he possessed a mind of such devious and tortuous complexity that normal men could not hope to understand. The truth, of course, was that Browning was an unpretentious, completely natural person, so unassuming that he did not know learning such as his was unique, so free of any perplexing dogmas of his own that he could reflect with photographic accuracy the most varied characters and yet absorb nothing of them. His own complete simplicity made it possible for him to portray more subtle natures. With all his masterly gift for words and for interpreting the workings of any human mind, he remained quite set in his own sober ways, cautious of innovation and so satisfied with his own make-up that he never bothered about introspection.

and later in the same chapter:

The booksellers of Oxford and Cambridge reported gratifying sales of Browning's works. Youths gathered eagerly around the poet at balls and dinners. The rising generation wrote him long and gushing letters. He found their homage charming, for he had reached that most delightful of all ages, the age of reminiscence. Here was a new audience for him, and he made the most of it.

The young, however, only supplemented the audience without which he could not have been happy, a select group of intelligently sympathetic women to whom he could talk as he could to no man, not even to Dommett when "Waring" came back from New Zealand after thirty years to resume the old friendship as easily as though it had never been interrupted. To Isa Blagden, Anne Smith, Lady Marion Alford, the aged Lady William Russell, Browning freely poured forth the thoughts that were kept hidden from the men he knew --- his fears and hopes for his son, the rare doubts that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds, his occasional fits of boredom, his stories of days so happy that the unsubstantial memories were strong enough to remove all flavor from the present triumphs. The listeners soothed him, flattered him, lectured him prettily and sent him back to the world with his faith in life restored and reenforced so that in arguments over whether good or evil predominated in this world, he was able to apologize for his determined stand for good by saying in humble tones:

"Well, I can only speak of it as I have found it myself."

Men could not bolster up that faith, even the wisest of them. Browning was one with his contemporaries in setting women upon a higher plane of goodness and purity than was attainable by the stronger sex, battling, as they believed, amid so many more temptations than ever beset a lady. Besides, he had recognized the normal need of men to turn to women as their confidantes, and he was glad that it was so. ...

from Chapter 19:

He was getting arrogant, almost as opinionated as he had been in his brash 'teens. At seventy he could not adjust himself to the idea of being a great man, just as at eighteen he failed to realize that he was not a great man. He was not prepared for the part any more. He resented contradictions; they offended his dignity so much that he once forgot himself and threatened during a dinner to throw a decanter at Forster's head. The critic had ventured to cast some doubts upon the veracity of a woman Robert quoted. The poet believed such doubts amounted to questioning his own veracity, and he was quite prepared to fight.

Despite these rare outbreaks, he did not lose his charm of manner. His pride did not carry with it contempt of others, and already such a great punctilio as he had learned when Victoria was a girl had become a little old-fashioned. In a dignified, handsome, white-haired old man the amenities of which he was so prodigal were much admired, especially as they provided a pleasant contrast for his works. These were not old-fashioned. Younger readers were finding Browning's dramatic monologues much more intoxicating than the daintier froth of less thoughtful poets.


His ostentatiously robust health accounted for this ability to enjoy a life that other men, no less vain, found exhausting. He could stand for hours, shaking hands with all comers and conversing with them volubly about anything. When it was over, he felt no weariness, rather a pleasant exhilaration at having been the center of attraction. He attended every big dinner of the season, and many that were not so big. No theatrical opening, no concert, no private view of an artist's latest works could pass without Browning's helpful presence. He became the greatest first-nighter as well as the greatest diner-out of his age.

and later in that chapter, commenting on his Parleyings With Certain People of Importance in Their Day:

Undoubtedly his wide reading of obscure authors had been largely responsible for the scholarship which was his outstanding quality, and the new book was merely a recognition of it. But much more than reading had gone into the making of the Browning mind. His friends, his love, his health, his calm and happy life, his unusual, zestful, lusty joy in just being alive and that indefinable something which the world hails as genius were surely of as much importance as Bob's [his father's] library. ...

from Chapter 20, discussing the Browning Societies which sprang up:

The disciples agreed on only one thing, that Robert Browning was a great philosopher. They were quite wrong, for they confused scholarship with philosophy. Browning was a poet --- the fact seems almost to have escaped the Browning Societies completely --- and he used the philosophies of other men as a matter of course without even subscribing to them himself, much less originating them. If he ever had a strictly new thought of a kind to qualify him as a philosopher, he kept it to himself, and he was not a man to practice that sort of intellectual reticence. It is safe to say that every time he was called a philosopher he was libelled. As a scholar he probably had no equal in England after his father died, and of this there is plenty of evidence in his books. But such distinction was not enough for the Society members. They insisted that "the Master's" poetry must contain all things for all men, even qualities that would prevent its being poetry.

and concluding that chapter:

Many critics considered it unwise and a little ridiculous to start such an institution as the Browning Societies while the poet was still alive. But in fact the Societies owed their lives to his vitality and they did not long survive him. The little cliques, each pretending to comprise all those who could understand the poetry of Robert Browning, honored him in his lifetime. But after his death they performed the greatest disservice that any writer can suffer. They effectually repelled the young, to whom the living man had made such a strong appeal, and with every paper they published, the alienation of public affections was carried a bit further. By fostering the legend that Browning wrote philosophy, not poetry, his too serious adherents insured for him the apprehensive, deliberate neglect of casual readers and turned all that was best of his long life out to die in the arid wastes of public indifference. His was a tragedy, although he did not live to see it, well captioned by the title of his own poem, "A Death in the Desert."

In America the Browning rage continued as long as the craze for culture. But when women began to take up golf and politics and business, they had no more time and less inclination to linger in the desert. The social life of dozens of communities shifted from the Browning Society to the country club, and soon only a few students were left to penetrate into the unknown in pursuit of the elusive Browning meaning. And like all desert rats, they were rather silent people, speaking a language of their own when they did speak. They could never describe to others the really splendid relics they had found buried in the sands of oblivion, and the literate world, if it thought of Browning at all, thought with the parodist:

"Ah, did you once find Browning plain,
And did he seem quite clear,
And did you read the book again?
How strange it seems and queer!"

(see also TheBrownings1 and TheBrownings2, plus BarrettAndBrowning and JudyReSonnetsfromthePortuguese)

TopicPoetry - TopicLiterature - 2001-12-15

(correlates: LoLa, UnimaginableTimelessness, WutheringHeights, ...)