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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robert Browning in Florence
By George William Curtis (1824–1892)
 
From ‘The Easy Chair’

IT is more than forty years since Margaret Fuller first gave distinction to the literary notices and reviews of the New York Tribune. Miss Fuller was a woman of extraordinary scholarly attainments and intellectual independence, the friend of Emerson and of the “Transcendental” leaders; and her critical papers were the best then published, and were fitly succeeded by those of her scholarly friend, George Ripley. It was her review in the Tribune of Browning’s early dramas and the ‘Bells and Pomegranates’ that introduced him to such general knowledge and appreciation among cultivated readers in this country, that it is not less true of Browning than of Carlyle that he was first better known in America than at home.  1
  It was but about four years before the publication of Miss Fuller’s paper that the Boston issue of Tennyson’s two volumes had delighted the youth of the time with the consciousness of the appearance of a new English poet. The eagerness and enthusiasm with which Browning was welcomed soon after were more limited in extent, but they were even more ardent; and the devoted zeal of Mr. Levi Thaxter as a Browning missionary and pioneer forecast the interest from which the Browning societies of later days have sprung. When Matthew Arnold was told in a small and remote farming village in New England that there had been a lecture upon Browning in the town the week before, he stopped in amazement, and said, “Well, that is the most surprising and significant fact I have heard in America.”  2
  It was in those early days of Browning’s fame, and in the studio of the sculptor Powers in Florence, that the youthful Easy Chair took up a visiting-card, and reading the name Mr. Robert Browning, asked with eager earnestness whether it was Browning the poet. Powers turned his large, calm, lustrous eyes upon the youth, and answered, with some surprise at the warmth of the question:—  3
  “It is a young Englishman, recently married, who is here with his wife, an invalid. He often comes to the studio.”  4
  “Good Heaven!” exclaimed the youth, “it must be Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.”  5
  Powers, with the half-bewildered air of one suddenly made conscious that he had been entertaining angels unawares, said reflectively, “I think we must have them to tea.”  6
  The youth begged to take the card which bore the poet’s address, and hastening to his room near the Piazza Novella, he wrote a note asking permission for a young American to call and pay his respects to Mr. and Mrs. Browning; but wrote it in terms which, however warm, would yet permit it to be put aside if it seemed impertinent, or if for any reason such a call were not desired. The next morning betimes the note was dispatched, and a half-hour had not passed when there was a brisk rap at the Easy Chair’s door. He opened it and saw a young man, who briskly inquired:—  7
  “Is Mr. Easy Chair here?”  8
  “That is my name.”  9
  “I am Robert Browning.”  10
  Browning shook hands heartily with his young American admirer, and thanked him for his note. The poet was then about thirty-five. His figure was not large, but compact, erect, and active; the face smooth, the hair dark; the aspect that of active intelligence, and of a man of the world. He was in no way eccentric, either in manner or appearance. He talked freely, with great vivacity, and delightfully, rising and walking about the room as his talk sparkled on. He heard with evident pleasure, but with entire simplicity and manliness, of the American interest in his works and in those of Mrs. Browning; and the Easy Chair gave him a copy of Miss Fuller’s paper in the Tribune.  11
  It was a bright, and to the Easy Chair a wonderfully happy hour. As he went, the poet said that Mrs. Browning would certainly expect to give Mr. Easy Chair a cup of tea in the evening; and with a brisk and gay good-by, Browning was gone.  12
  The Easy Chair blithely hied him to the Café Doné, and ordered of the flower-girl the most perfect of nosegays, with such fervor that she smiled; and when she brought the flowers in the afternoon, said with sympathy and meaning, “Eccola, signore! per la donna bellissima!”  13
  It was not in the Casa Guidi that the Brownings were then living, but in an apartment in the Via della Scala, not far from the place or square most familiar to strangers in Florence—the Piazza Trinità. Through several rooms the Easy Chair passed, Browning leading the way; until at the end they entered a smaller room arranged with an air of English comfort, where at a table, bending over a tea-urn, sat a slight lady, her long curls drooping forward. “Here,” said Browning, addressing her with a tender diminutive, “here is Mr. Easy Chair.” And, as the bright eyes but wan face of the lady turned towards him, and she put out her hand, Mr. Easy Chair recalled the first words of her verse he had ever known:—
      “‘Onora, Onora!’ her mother is calling;
She sits at the lattice, and hears the dew falling,
    Drop after drop from the sycamore laden
With dew as with blossom, and calls home the maiden:
          ‘Night cometh, Onora!’”
  14
  The most kindly welcome and pleasant chat followed, Browning’s gayety dashing and flashing in, with a sense of profuse and bubbling vitality, glancing at a hundred topics; and when there was some allusion to his ‘Sordello,’ he asked, quickly, with an amused smile, “Have you read it?” The Easy Chair pleaded that he had not seen it. “So much the better. Nobody understands it. Don’t read it, except in the revised form, which is coming.” The revised form has come long ago, and the Easy Chair has read, and probably supposes that he understands. But Thackeray used to say that he did not read Browning, because he could not comprehend him, adding ruefully, “I have no head above my eyes.”  15
  A few days later—
  “O gift of God! O perfect day!”—
the Easy Chair went with Mr. and Mrs. Browning to Vallombrosa, and the one incident most clearly remembered is that of Browning’s seating himself at the organ in the chapel, and playing,—some Gregorian chant, perhaps, or hymn of Pergolesi’s. It was enough to the enchanted eyes of his young companion that they saw him who was already a great English poet sitting at the organ where the young Milton had sat, and touching the very keys which Milton’s hand had pressed.
  16
 
 
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