Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 27

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Stiff staircases such as he found there he never objected to; in fact, whether at home or when travelling, he had a marked preference for being located in one of the upper storeys. So it was on the second floor he had established his library and study.

His sister, Miss Browning, to whom so frequent reference is made in his letters as Sarianna, lived with him and ever devoted herself to the task of securing his comfort and happiness. She would write out his poems and otherwise make herself useful as his amanuensis; frequent too were the opportunities the brother and sister took to travel together, and when abroad, they would enjoy nothing better than a walk of several hours.

The last time I saw him at the Studio, he had come to tell me that he was shortly leaving for Italy. He spoke with enthusiasm of Asolo, describing its beauties in glowing colours, and he told me how, some forty years ago, as a young man, he had reached it when on a walking tour through the Venetian province.

"How many a year, my Asolo, Since--one step just from sea to land-- I found you!"

It was the old tower crowning the hills, the Rocca, at that time tenanted by hawks, that had made the most lasting impression on his mind. He had been there again in later years with his sister, and now he was elated at the prospect of once more revisiting it and the picturesque old city he loved so well. He went, and it was there he wrote his last work, "Asolando."



Prompted by the desire to ramble over the ground he had so lately trodden, and to gather what evidence I could of his passage, I went to Venice and Asolo in the following year, and painted a series of water-colours (some fourteen or fifteen) in illustration of notes I took during my stay in these places. Some of those notes may not be out of place here to complete my sketch of Browning.[18]

A couple of hours' ride by rail took me from Venice to Cornuda, two more by diligence to my destination. Leaving the plain an excellent road, cut into the flanks of the hill on which the town is built, soon brought me to the summit. I had only risen six or seven hundred feet, but a magnificent view greeted me on all sides. "In clear weather you can see Venice," the driver told me; but I was anxious to look forward, not backward, and alighting at the entrance to a narrow street, I walked along the _Sotto-portici_, formed by a series of quaint thick-set arches supporting the upper storeys. A few steps brought me to the house in which, as the tablet on the wall says, had lived the "Somma Poeta."

"What a curious place to select!" was my first thought as I stood at the door of the old house. I walked up twelve or fifteen hard stone steps, grasping the banister to guide myself in the dark, and was soon warmly welcomed by Signora Nina Tabacchi, as, passing through the kitchen, I was ushered into the sitting-room. "Scrupulously clean and neat," was my next impression, but how plain! The room was only a piece of the kitchen partitioned off, a glass door and window separating the two. The thin cotton curtain might possibly screen the mysteries of the culinary process from the poet's eye, but his ear must have been caught by occasional sounds of hacking and chopping, and certainly no kettle could have boiled, no wood could crackle, or incense arise from that adjacent hearth without making itself distinctly noticeable. Such was his study and his drawing-room, a _multum in parvo_ about twelve feet square.

I had ample time to study my surroundings, for I spent some weeks in the rooms vacated by the poet. The furniture was of the good old lodging-house type. In the centre of the little sitting-room was a round pedestal table, half of which was devoted to Browning's papers; on the other half, luncheon was served for himself and his sister. A full-length sofa, uncompromisingly hard, took up the greater part of one wall, and a kind of sideboard stood opposite. On the chiffonnier, between the two windows, rested the looking-glass, and half-a-dozen mahogany chairs, cane-bottomed and severe backed, completed the arrangements. On the flesh-coloured walls hung a series of prints, illustrating the history of Venice. Doges disporting themselves in most conventional attitudes, the vanquished kneeling before the victors, gave one the impression that history involves a great amount of bowing and scraping. In pleasant contrast with such triumphs were the domestic joys as depicted by the photographer. Looking up from his papers, Browning's eye must have rested on that shell-adorned frame which encircled the usual specimens of family portraits. There were the inevitable aunts and uncles, the young man pressing into the focus, to meet the clever dog seated on the table by his side, and a typical presentment of the mother and child as conceived by the lens.

To Luigi, the landlady's son, Browning was from the first very friendly; but how this lad, ever on the alert to make himself useful, could have kept any length of time in his good graces, is a mystery to me. He owns that on one or two occasions the sturdy master sent him flying, when he would imprudently insist on opening the door for him, or on lighting him down the dark staircase.

On his arrival Browning had bought a plain glass inkstand and a few wooden penholders; they were still there, on a blue-patterned china plate, just as he had left them. I reverently put them aside, but I might as well have used them; for just as he would never allow me to make the slightest fuss of him, the living friend, so he would not have expected me to stand on ceremony with the inanimate objects that survived him. A pen was just a pen, as "A flower is just a flower."

Asolo boasted of a theatre, and the performances must have been none of the worst, for, out of twenty, Browning only missed three. He would sit in his friend Mrs. Bronson's box, and follow the actors as they told the story of Hamlet, Othello, or Mary Queen of Scots, or as they played Goldoni's popular comedies. The performance usually wound up with a short farce. From that he would escape, leaving Gigi (that is Luigi), who was his frequent companion, to do the screaming laughter. About half-past eleven or twelve he got home, and by five or six in the morning he was up again. His bedroom was about 16 feet by 9, and 10 feet high. A really good rococo design, speaking of an artistic past, embossed and picked out in grey, decorated the whitewashed walls.

Rafters brought out the irregularities of the ceiling, and bricks, very much wrinkled and worn with age, paved the floor. Signora Tabacchi had offered to procure a carpet, but had met with an energetic refusal.

There was a funny little looking-glass, and a wash-hand stand with a diminutive basin, and over the glass door a towel was neatly tacked to insure privacy.

And what in this land of vistas greeted the poet's eye as he opened his shutters? A blank wall and another set of shutters. They would be opened presently to be sure when the sun left the neighbour's wall, and then a flood of light would burst into the centre corridor of his house, and the reflections from the marble floor would carry the quivering rays along to another window beyond, through which you caught a lovely glimpse of the hills on the other side of the valley. In that particular glimpse Browning delighted. When his son came to Asolo, he was struck, as I was later, by the uncongenial outlook.

"Wait, Pen, till they open those shutters," Browning had said. Pen waited and was duly impressed and pleased. It was well so, for had it been otherwise, his father's pleasure would have been incomplete.

The people of Asolo are of the kindliest nature; simple, peaceful folk, hard-working and contented. Perched on high in their picturesque dwellings, they seem raised above at least some of our terrestrial troubles. They live sheltered by solid masses of mediaeval stone, and surrounded by the gardens they cultivate; the vine is here, there, and everywhere, zig-zagging along rough stone terraces and gliding down the slopes, or creeping into the windows. A tangle of massive foliage springs from one knows not where, large leaves that dwarf all else elbow their way to the front, and here and there in their midst a big yellow gourd comfortably rests on a stone cornice or on an artificial prop.

The fig leaves, though certainly overshadowed by their bulky neighbours, hold their own in the universal struggle for air and space. And somewhere in the distance is a little graceful figure stretching upward to train the vine in the way it should go, and right or wrong you straightway jump to the conclusion, if you are an artist, that that figure belongs to a beautiful girl.

The children are out of doors; so are the pigs. Whilst the latter always seem grumbling and dissatisfied, the former are as happy as sunshine and _polenta_ can make a child. The sight of an approaching stranger carrying the artist's paraphernalia, at once suggests to a sturdy urchin the idea that he should rush for a chair, and to the woman at her door, that she should offer you a hearty welcome. No wonder if some of these good people were destined to entertain an angel or a poet unawares.

Browning might not have manifested himself as such, but there was something about him that endeared him to all he met. Faces brightened as I spoke of him; voices deepened as they answered, "_Ah poveretto!_ how kind he was--_proprio buono!_ Here he used to sit and chat with us;" or, "I showed him the way to the Rocca eleven years ago." This last remark came from the postmaster, who took the deepest interest in everything concerning Browning. He was very anxious that I should paint a picture of the post-office, as being the historical place the poet had many a time visited. "It was over that counter of mine," he said, "that his last work, the immortal 'Asolando,' was handed. On me he relied to transmit it with the greatest care, for he assured me he had kept no copy of it. Yes, it went per book-post, registered and addressed, I well recollect, to the publisher Mr. Smith, of London, and he was surprised it should cost so little--only seventy centimes; it weighed 450 grammes, you see, and so that was the postage."

I may add that the manuscript thus sent, and since returned to the poet's son, is written in Browning's neatest and distinctest hand. There are but few corrections or erasures. Of these one has perhaps a special interest, as applying to the last line he ever published. The "Epilogue"

he first ended thus:--

"'Strive and thrive' cry 'God to speed, Fight ever there as here.'"

This he changed to--

"'Strive and thrive' cry 'Speed fight-on, Fare ever there as here.'"

On hearing that the manuscript had safely reached its destination, Browning's kind thoughts at once reverted to the postmaster, good and true, and he went to thank him for his share in the transaction.

Little can have changed at the Rocca since Browning visited it. The stones roll down the narrow path from under your feet, as you ascend through vineyards and orchards, past stray poultry and groups of sleeping ducks. In a few minutes you reach the crest of the hill, and find the old strong-hold, turret-flanked and loopholed, that had for generations frowned upon the valley below, as was the way of citadels in the bad old times. Now it is all smiles, garland-wreathed and happy in its green old age.

During his stay in Asolo Browning and his sister spent much time in the house of Mrs. Bronson, the Mrs. Arthur Bronson to whom the poet dedicated his last book of verses, and whom he thanked in his preface for "yet another experience of the gracious hospitality bestowed on me for so many years." In the afternoon they would all take long drives together.

It was on one of these occasions that Browning hit upon the title he would give his volume of poems. His son suggesting that it should in some way be connected with the name of Asolo, he bethought himself of the verb _asolare_. "Have you a good dictionary?" he asked his hostess.

"I feel sure it was Cardinal Bembo who used the word, but I must look it up." He did, the well-known result being the adoption of the title and the explanation given in the introductory lines.

At Mrs. Bronson's it was quite understood that he should come and go as he liked, and that he should consider "La Mura" as much his home as he would his own house. A spacious loggia had recently been added to the old building, virtually forming a new room, roofed in, but open to the air on three sides. Here Browning spent many hours walking up and down or reading, or he would sit in the arm-chair and "drink in the air," as he used to say.

From that point of vantage he would watch Nature's ever-varying moods, and muse over the historical recollections evoked by Caterina Cornaro's palace and the other old buildings on the hills opposite. Often he would hurry back to the house, anxious lest he should miss the sunset as viewed from that loggia.

A constant source of enjoyment to him was an old spinet, marked and dated, "Ferdinando Ferrari, Ravenna, 1522." Knowing how much pleasure this little instrument had given him during former stays at her house in Venice, his hostess had had it brought to Asolo, and, here as there, he delighted in playing upon it of an evening, simple, restful melodies that had been familiar to him for years, or quaint scraps of early German or Italian music.

From the spinet he would go to the books. "What have you got?" he asked on the first evening of his stay. "What shall I read to you?

Shakespeare? What! You don't mean to say you haven't brought your Shakespeare! I am shocked."

On this, as on other occasions, he was always most deprecatory when asked to read something of his own. But the new edition of his works which he had presented to his friend, being at hand, he would take down a volume and relate, in his own words, and with his unaffected intonation, the story of a Paracelsus or a Strafford. And that would afterwards lead him to speak with ever fresh enthusiasm of the historical associations connected with such names. In the course of the exhaustive studies that always preceded the composition of any work of his, he made himself intimately acquainted with every fact concerning the lives of those whom he was about to pourtray. Whatever detail history had preserved he made his own, and what his mind had once assimilated, his memory ever retained.

The pilgrim to Asolo would naturally look about for some clue to the poems written there. He would hope to meet with some of the models, animate or inanimate, that might have suggested one or the other of the "Facts and Fancies." But, reticent as Browning always was concerning his work, even with those nearest to him, he has left no trace to guide us.

It was quite exceptional when, one day returning from a drive, he said, "I've composed a poem since we've been out; it is all in my head, and when I get home I will write it down."

"What is it about?" very naturally asked his companions.

"No, no, no; that I won't say. You know I never can speak of what I am writing."

"Ah, but now you have told us so much, you must tell us all," pleaded Mrs. Bronson; and as she resolutely declared she would not take No for an answer, he gave way, and said--

"Very well then, I will tell you. It is all about the ladies wearing birds in their hats. I've put it pretty strong, and I don't know how they'll take it."

The proof-sheets of his book of poems he had given to Mrs. Bronson. "Did you understand them all?" he asked. "Did you understand the flute music? Ah, not quite. Well, some day I'll tell you all about it." But the day never came! He little knew that he was postponing it for ever; on the contrary, he was planning pleasant things for the future.

"If I were only ten years younger," he said, "I should like to have a place here in Asolo. Now the Asilo Infantile; if I could get that, I would complete it and call it Pippa's tower. It is more for Pen. I may not enjoy it long; but after all, I do think I am good for another ten years."

The Asilo Infantile he spoke of was a large unfinished building, originally intended to do service as a schoolhouse. It stood opposite the loggia on the ridge of the hills that push forward into the valley.

Pippa and her sister-weavers were often uppermost in the poet's mind, and he would tell how formerly the girls used to sit at their work in the doorways all along the _Sotto-portici_ and weave cheerful songs into their web. Now the trade had gone to Cornuda and elsewhere. He had visions of what he would like to do for the poor girls thus dispossessed, should he come to live among them--visions that were in a great measure to be realised by those who bear his name, and who have inherited his world-wide sympathies.

Negotiations were opened with the Town Council with the view of acquiring the building and grounds to be dedicated to Pippa. It was the first time that municipal property was to be sold, so the matter had carefully to be considered by those in authority. The negotiations took their due course; but alas! they came to a close too late. The intending tenant was never to obtain possession.

The day and hour that a favourable decision was arrived at, was also the day and hour of the poet's death.

THE END

FOOTNOTES:

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 27

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