‘Browning’s talk had not much intellectual resemblance to his poetry’

  • Sidney Colvin


Browning’s talk had not much intellectual resemblance to his poetry. That is to say, it was not apt to be specially profound or subtle; still less was it ever entangled or obscure. Probably the act of speech did not allow his brain time to perform those prodigies of activity by which it was wont, when he had the pen in hand, to discover a thousand complications and implications and side-issues beneath the surface of the simplest-seeming matters; complications which often he could only express by defying the rules of grammar and discarding half the auxiliary parts of speech, by stitching clause on to clause and packing parenthesis within parenthesis, till the drift of his sentences became dark and their conclusion undiscoverable. (The mere act of writing seemed to have a peculiar effect on him, for I have known him manage to be obscure even in a telegram.) Rather his style in talk was straightforward, plain, emphatic, heartily and agreeably voluble, ranging easily from deep earnest to jolly jest, rich and varied in matter but avoiding rather than courting the abstruse whether in speculation or controversy, and often condescending freely to ordinary human gossip on a level with the rest of us. Its general tone was genially kind, encouraging and fortifying; but no one was more promptly moved to indignation, indignation to which he never hesitated to give effect, by any tale or instance of cruelty or calumny or injustice: nor could any one be more tenderly or chivalrously sympathetic with the victim of such offences. Not to quote instances known to me of a more private and personal kind, I remember his strong and re-iterated expressions of anger against Froude for having, as he thought, misrepresented the character of Carlyle.1 Instead of being the hard man figured in Froude’s pages — inconsiderate in relations with his wife, unkind, in one instance at least, in his treatment of a horse—Carlyle, maintained Browning, was the most intensely, sensitively tender-hearted of men: and he went on to tell how, as he walked one day in Chelsea with Carlyle’s arm in his, a butcher-boy drove by savagely flogging his horse and he felt the sage shake from head to foot in a spasm of righteous indignation.

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

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  • Sidney Colvin

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