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Attribution and misattribution: new poems by Robert Browning?


ONE MIGHT EXPECT at a poet's two hundredth birthday that the questions as to what he wrote and what he did not write would be settled, but in the case of Robert Browning confusion has persisted in large part because he was married to a poet. He and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote on each other's manuscripts, translated the same poems from the Greek, and Robert Browning made fair copies of at least two--perhaps more--of her rough drafts. This essay will attempt to sort through some of the present problems of attribution. It will reclaim two poems for Robert Browning, argue that nine poems are possibly his, and propose the acceptance of his authorship of a newly found poem, "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath."

Recent scholarship has provided correct attribution in some cases but misattribution in others. For example, Barrett Browning's authorship of "Aeschylus' Soliloquy" is now a certainty. The effort on the part of a devoted husband to make a fair copy of his dead wife's heavily revised rough draft of this poem led to the unintended consequence that he for many years was given credit for writing it. William Clyde DeVane remarked that it "is the best of the poems which Browning left unpublished." (1) As recently as 1981, "Aeschylus' Soliloquy" was included in John Pettigrew's edition of Robert Browning, The Poems. Yet as early on as 1942, M. H. Shackford had argued in The Times Literary Supplement for Barrett Browning's authorship; her hypothesis was quashed, before a month had passed, by G. D. Hobson in the same publication. (2) It seemed reasonable to assume that Browning wrote the poem because the only known manuscript was in his hand. But then in 1997 Shackford's instincts were confirmed by fact; Margaret Reynolds and Barbara Rosenbaum examined a manuscript at the Huntington Library and found it to be a rough draft of the poem in Barrett Browning's hand. Thus the question of attribution was settled: "Aeschylus' Soliloquy" was a poem by Elizabeth, not Robert, Browning; and it was rightly published in the recent Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (3)

This change in attribution was done for good cause, but Sandra Donaldson and the other editors of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning have proved too willing to take two additional poems, this time wrongfully, from Robert Browning and assign them to Barrett Browning: they hold that "Horns to Bulls" and "I fain would sing of Cadmus king," translations from the sixth-century Greek lyric poet Anacreon, were written not by Browning but by Barrett Browning. The fact is that though she made translations of these Anacreon poems, so did her husband. The two translations are very different. Barrett Browning's translation of "Horns to Bulls" is in traditional verse form, eighteenth-century-like couplets:
   Nature gave horns to bulls, & hoofs to horses
   Swiftness to hares--to lions teeth & forces!
   Fins thro' the stream the glittering fishes bear
   And birds may skim the soft expanse of air!
   A soul an upright soul to man was given
   Exalted noble, pure & formed for Heaven!
   But woman! Gentle sex, say what would suit ye
   Wise nature knew too well, & gave ye beauty!
   For beauty 'gainst the mightiest can prevail
   And bid the mightiest and the greatest fail!
   Rival in power the buckler or the lance
   Awe worlds, & vanquish nations with a glance! (4)

The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010) lists the source for the text as the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library; the manuscript is dated 26 January 1821. The source for Robert Browning's "Horns to Bulls," the first eight lines of which appear in Pettigrew's edition (2:947), is a manuscript, clearly in his hand and on his De Vere Gardens stationery, at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. It is in an envelope addressed to Felix Moscheles and postmarked 30 July 1888. This translation imitates the short and energetic meter of the original Greek:
   Horns to bulls, gave Nature,
   Likewise hooves to horses:
   Hares their footed swiftness[,]
   Lions--teeth wide-yawning:
   To the fishes--swimming,
   To the birds their plume-play,-Women-no
   more had she!
   What then? She gives Beauty-Gift
   instead of all shields,
   Gift instead of all spears!
   For she conquers iron-Ay,
   and fire--the Beauteous. (5)

There can be no question that Barrett Browning and Browning produced their own translations of a common Greek poem at different times in their lives. But the Barrett Browning edition does not acknowledge Robert Browning's very different translation, and when that edition alludes to the Beinecke manuscript, it assumes that it is not different from the version it prints. In the wink of an eye, Browning had his literary pocket picked by Donaldson and her fellow editors.

Pettigrew's edition also includes ten additional translations from Anacreon; his copy text is a manuscript at the Houghton Library, Harvard University (MS Eng 865), which is in Browning's hand. The first poem on the Harvard manuscript, "I fain would sing of Cadmus king," apparently presented an irresistible temptation to the Barrett Browning editors. Because their poet had made her own translation of "Fain Would I Sing" (the manuscript for which is at the Beinecke Library, Yale University), they assumed that Robert Browning's own translation is merely a copy of his wife's. The head note, in the Barrett Browning edition, to "Fain Would I Sing" asserts: "The Harvard manuscript, on a leaf with nine others, is in RB's hand, which caused those to be attributed to him for many years." The Beinecke manuscript, in Barrett Browning's hand, is, however, markedly different from Browning's translation. The two translations follow, first Barrett Browning's:
   Fain would I sing the great Atrides praise
   Or the loud strain to Cadmus' glory raise
   Great is the music of the sweet timed lyre
   Love[']s power alone can animate & fire!
   To that sweet name the muse untaught replies
   And on the trembling string the cadence dies!
   Time was when Hercules I vainly tried
   To exalt--still love the lute responsive sighed!
   Thus farewell heroes! oh farewell the long roar
   Of glorious Time! Farewell the rage of war!
   Now oe'r [sic] those strings where Music yet may rove
   The muse enraptured bends & breathes out ... love! (6)

Browning's translation, the first poem on his manuscript at the Houghton Library, has a rather intricate form, very different from his wife's regular five-stressed lines in rhymed couplets. This twelve-line poem, with an unusual aaabcccdbeeb rhyme scheme, is mainly iambic tetrameter, with the word "love" at the end of each of the three shortened trimeter lines:
   I fain would sing of Cadmus king,
   And fain of Atrean banqueting;
   But still the harp through every string
   Doth echo only love--
   I brake the chord that erewhile sent
   That note, and changed the instrument;
   And how Alcides' labours went
   I sang with fire,--but still the lyre
      Gave back the word of Love.
   So farewell all heroical
   Rare Spirits! for the lyre withal
      Can sound but only love[.] (7)

In the right margin, Browning inserted an alternative version for lines 5 and 6: "I changed the chord from its intent, / I took a new whole instrument." This alternative reading suggests that he was continuing to puzzle out his translation.

It is curious enough that the Barrett Browning edition makes the error of ignoring Browning's own translations of "Horns to Bulls" and "I fain would sing of Cadmus king" assuming that the manuscripts in Browning's hand were merely copies of Barrett Browning's manuscripts. Indeed, this was not the first time that Browning and Barrett Browning had made their own individual translations of the same lines: both had translated the same lines by Pietro d'Albano, which the Barrett Browning edition had noted, and this fact might have alerted the editors to the possibility of further common translations. (8) There seems little question that the first poem in the Harvard manuscript is Browning's own translation, just as "Horns to Bulls" is his own.

The Barrett Browning edition also claims all the remaining poems in the Harvard manuscript. I must argue against this precipitate move. I first take up the seventh of the ten poems, the translation "Thou indeed, little Swallow," because this poem presents the most difficult problem of attribution. This seventh poem is very much like the one published in Barrett Browning's Last Poems (1862). Indeed, it would at first seem that the Barrett Browning edition makes a fair claim that this poem should be recognized as Barrett Browning's. Half of the lines on the Barrett Browning version at the Armstrong Browning Library and printed in Last Poems are substantially the same as the version on the Harvard manuscript but that means that about half are substantially different, and we must consider what this might mean. First, Barrett Browning's published translation:
   Thou indeed, little Swallow,
   A sweet yearly comer,
   Art building a hollow
   New nest every summer,
   And straight dost depart
   Where no gazing can follow,
   Past Memphis, down Nile!
   Ah! But Love all the while
   Builds his nest in my heart,
   Through the cold winter-weeks:
   And as one Love takes flight,
   Comes another, O Swallow,
   In an egg warm and white,
   And another is callow.
   And the large gaping beaks
   Chirp all day and all night:
   And the Loves who are older
   Help the young and the poor Loves,
   And the young Loves grow bolder
   Increase by the score Loves-Why,
   what can be done?
   If a noise comes from one,
   Can I bear all this rout of a hundred and more Loves? (9)

The translation from Browning's Houghton manuscript begins to differ from the Last Poems version of the poem at line 5:
   And then doth depart
   Where no gazing can follow
   Past Memphis, down Nile!
   But Love all the while
   Through the cold winter-weeks
   Builds his nest in my heart.
   As one passion takes flight
   Another, oh swallow,
   Is an egg warm and white
   And another is callow.
   And all day and all night
   Chirp the large gaping beaks!
   And the loves who are older
   Help the young and the poor Loves,
   And the young Loves grown bolder
   Increase as before Loves-Why
   what can be done?
   If a noise comes from one,
   Can I bear all this rout of a hundred and more loves?

Following the first substantive difference between the published version of "Thou indeed, little Swallow" and Browning's manuscript, which occurs in the fifth line ("And straight dost depart" [Last Poems], "And then dost depart" [Houghton MS]), the differences become more marked from line 8 through line 16. Nonetheless, "Thou indeed, little swallow," as it appears in the Harvard manuscript, is not, considering the whole, so starkly different a translation from the version we know Barrett Browning produced as is his "I fain would sing of Cadmus king" surely different from the Barrett Browning version of that Greek poem. If we were concerned with original poetry here instead of a translation, then clearly we would have to conclude that we have two versions of a poem by Barrett Browning. In a sense we are here dealing with a single poem but which is in Greek, and so the two versions in English might well overlap if both Brownings had translated fairly literally from the Greek original.

But they did not translate literally. Both translations have more in common with each other than they do with the literal meaning of the Greek poem: in the first line, both refer to the "swallow" as "little" when the Greek "phile" is closer to "dear" than "little"; in the second line, the common appearance of "sweet" is an addition to the Greek; both versions make line 3 in the Greek into two lines; both add an adverb in line 5 (though the adverbs are different) when the original Greek line contains no adverb; in line 6 both convey the single Greek word "aphantos" ("unseen") with "where no gazing can follow"; in line 7, both mention Memphis and then the Nile, while the Greek has the Nile and then Memphis; both have the line "through the cold winter-weeks" which does not correspond to anything in the Greek poem; in line 12 both address the swallow, though no such address occurs in the Greek; in line 18 both use "young and poor" to convey the Greek "mikrous," which means "small"; and both poems end in a way that is very different from the original Greek (the Greek literally means "For I do not have strength/to shout down so many Loves"); instead of ending the translation with a statement, both versions turn the statement into a question; further, they change the closing concept, shifting from the idea of being unable to do something to being unable to tolerate something. Thus, the evidence is overwhelming that Barrett Browning's and Browning's translations were not done independently.

That the Brownings produced a shared translation and then separately tinkered with the common translation must remain a possibility; however, there is another way of looking at these similar versions that opens another possibility: that Browning produced the original translation, which Barrett Browning subsequently tinkered with. A comparison of the Harvard manuscript of the poem and Barrett Browning's version reveals that many of the differences between Barrett Browning's version and Browning's version show his to be closer to the original Greek. First of all, while Barrett Browning introduces the exclamation "Ah!" at the beginning of line 8, Browning has no such exclamation in his manuscript, nor does the Greek original. Then, in line 11, instead of Barrett Browning's "Love," he uses the word "passion," which is closer to the Greek "pothos" ("desire" "longing"). He uses "is" in line 13 in accord with the Greek text, which literally says, "and another is still an egg," while Barrett Browning substitutes a preposition for the verb. The ordering of lines 15-16 in Browning's version is closer to the original (the Greek for "always"--"aiei"--comes before the gaping chicks in the following line, and Browning puts "all day and all night" in line 15 before the chicks in line 16). Finally, in line 20 Browning's "as before" conveys the Greek for "again" or "in turn" (palin) while Barrett Browning's "by the score" does not reflect the Greek original. (10)

The issue as to whether the wife or the husband deserves credit for "Thou indeed, little swallow" remains unsettled: even though the translation was published in Barrett Browning's Last Poems as hers, the manner in which it found its place there deserves consideration. As soon as Browning, with his son, settled in London following the death of Barrett Browning in 1861, he set about preparing for a final collection of her poetry. John Gordan judges this endeavor of selecting, editing, and publishing his wife's last volume as Browning's characteristic way of controlling his grief. (11) But the grief was still there controlling Browning's editing procedures. Whereas Barrett Browning would probably have been discriminating in deciding what to publish, Browning was perhaps incapable of objectivity and more than ready to include every precious poem and translation--which might explain why Alethea Hayter is so puzzled by the contents of Last Poems, "so various and uneven that it might have been written twenty years apart, or by three or four different poets." (12) The advertisement for Last Poems, supplied by Browning, almost confirms that he erred on the side of inclusiveness:
   There is hardly such direct warrant for publishing the
   translations; which were only intended, many years ago, to
   accompany and explain certain Engravings after ancient Gems, in the
   projected work of a friend by whose kindness they are now
   recovered: but as two of the original series (the "Adonis" of Bion,
   and "Song to the Rose" from Achilles Tatius) have subsequently
   appeared it is presumed that the remainder may not improperly

   A single recent version is added. (13)

The "single recent version" could well be the tinkered-with version of "Thou indeed, little Swallow."

If it were his translation that his wife had revised, he might well have felt that those revisions had made it hers. If it were their joint translation that she had revised, he would have been even more inclined to think that she had made it hers. Some of the commentary on Browning's state of mind in the months after his wife's death suggest that there was not in his mind a clear distinction between himself and her. As Margaret Foster explains: "He had seen her lifeless body, he had buried it and yet he found her still alive within him. It was not that he shared any of her own ideas he did not for one moment think she had become a spirit who was communicating from the other side--but that the truth of what he had always alleged was proved: she was part of him.... He found he carried her within him." (14) His own part in the translation of "Thou indeed, little swallow" might well at the time have seemed not worth considering as he arranged his wife's last collection that was to be published in the spring of the next year. We do not know when Browning made the three-page fair copy of ten poems that includes "Thou indeed, little swallow" as the seventh poem. We may feel certain that the first of the ten poems is his own translation, and I think it reasonable to assume that the others are as well--so far, only the seventh poem presents an impediment to an easy conclusion: if it were Barrett Browning's, would it not cast doubt on the others' being Browning's?

It is equally hard to imagine that he would have meant to claim a translation for himself if it clearly belonged to his wife, and at the end of the Houghton manuscript he did write that the poems were "Transcribed from Anacreon"--and that manuscript is entirely in his handwriting. If Barrett Browning had been the translator, Browning would ordinarily have recorded such an important fact, though in the case of "Aeschylus' Soliloquy" mentioned earlier, he did not indicate that the poem was his wife's. Yet he did not make revisions on the "Aeschylus" manuscript as he had done in one instance on the Anacreon manuscript. Whether when Browning created the fair copy of the ten Anacreontic translations he was aware that the seventh poem was an earlier version of a revised translation that he had placed or would place in his wife's Last Poems, we just cannot say. Even as we consider every angle on the issue, uncertainty prevails. (15) Nevertheless, there seems some reason for cautiously and tentatively attributing the original translation of "Thou indeed, little swallow" to Browning. After all, the version in his hand on the Harvard manuscript is as I have shown closer to the original Greek than Barrett Browning's version and therefore might have been the basis for hers.

The Barrett Browning edition goes on to make an inclusive claim that the other eight poems grouped in the Houghton Library manuscript, all in Browning's hand, are also by Barrett Browning, even though these, as they admit, are "the only extant version[s]." (16) Since the Barrett Browning edition had made the incorrect assumption described above (that the first of the ten poems was not by Browning but by Barrett Browning) and since they did not allow for the possibility that "Thou indeed, little swallow" might at the very least have been a collaborative effort by husband and wife, it was an easy step for the editors to conclude that all the other poems in the Harvard manuscript were Barrett Browning's as well. The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction had listed all the transcriptions from the "Anacreontea" in the Harvard manuscript as Barrett Browning's, and the Barrett Browning edition, in failing to question this error, failed also to heed its own editorial principles: "the guiding principle of the edition is that we include only works that Barrett Browning oversaw at some point in her lifetime" which in the case of unpublished works means "that copy-texts are to be derived from the latest fair copy that she created or oversaw." (17) The additional poems that the Barrett Browning edition claims without warrant for its poet are "The earth drinks herself dark with the fast-falling rain" "In this shadow of Bathyllus" "When I drink the red red wine" "Where Bacchus enters bright and bold," "O Love, the Muses bound him," "Fly me not, fair creature" (together with "Sweetest, do not fly me"), "Blessing on thee, Grasshopper," and "I love to see a glad old man" All of these poems appear in The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and are the same translations that are in the Houghton Library manuscript in Browning's hand. That Browning did not include any of these eight translations from the Harvard manuscript in his wife's Last Poems but only another version of "Thou indeed, little swallow" is an indication that these eight might well be his.

I recognize the possibility that these translations could turn out to be Barrett Browning's, and that is why any conclusion that Browning is responsible for the translations must be held tentatively. Yet it will take the uncovering of additional drafts to settle the question. It is unlikely that any lost drafts by Browning will turn up. When he moved from one house to another in 1887, he destroyed "unpublished early verse" and his working manuscripts from all periods. An anonymous note in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library observes that "Unpublished verse of Browning is, as may be believed, excessively rare; the poet having made a wholesale burnt-offering of the vast quantity of fragmentary MSS. some year before his death; the late Mr. Dykes Campbell officiating as flamen." (18) Unlike Browning, Barrett Browning maintained throughout her life a compulsion to save every scrap of manuscript. Her voluminous notebooks and wrapped-up scraps from every period of her life are scattered across the world; many manuscripts remain in private collections, and many have not been located; they turn up from time to time. If an unfound manuscript is to solve the question of attribution for the remaining poems here in question, it will undoubtedly be Barrett Browning's manuscript.

Donaldson admits, quite rightly, "this volume must remain, to a degree, work in progress." (19) My argument is that The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning went off course when the editors unequivocally claimed all of the poems in the Harvard manuscript for Barrett Browning. If there are undiscovered Barrett Browning manuscripts of these translations, they must be waited for. If they turn up they may show that Barrett Browning made different translations of the same poems that her husband also translated, as in "I fain would sing of Cadmus king" or that the other nine Harvard poems are indeed Barrett Browning's translations, copied over by a husband who meant to preserve a clear copy but failed to append his wife's name to the manuscript collection. All sorts of possibilities suggest themselves. The transcriptions from the "Anacreontea" might have been a husband-and-wife collaborative effort from the start.

The discussion above on "Thou indeed, little swallow" suggests this possibility, and the two versions of the antipenultimate poem on the Houghton manuscript offer an even stronger indication that the two Brownings were, to some extent, engaged in a common effort to translate poems from Anacreon. We find this entry to contain two versions, side by side, of an Anacreon poem written to a lady. (20) To the left, in line with the other poems on the manuscript, Browning has produced a fair copy of one version, "Fly me not fair creature":
   Fly me not fair creature
   Though my locks are grey!
   Nor my love-vows cast away,
   For thy flower of nature!
   Let these garlands make thee sage!
   Twining tho the truth is,
   Roses red as youth is,
   With lilies white as age.

A vertical line separates this translation from the other version, which appears to the right. It is a relatively straightforward rendering of the Greek into English poetic idiom:
   Sweetest, do not fly me
   Though my hair is grey
   Nor my love deny me
   Though the flower of youth hood may
   Bloom within thee fresh to-day!
   Mark the garlands in the night!
   How with scarlet roses they
   Entwine the lilies white.

What are we to make of this arrangement, so different from what we find in the other nine translations on the Harvard manuscript? The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not attempt to answer this question; instead it creates confusion on the issue. First, its entry for the two poems goes under the title of the second version "Sweetest, do not fly me." We can see why the editors made this decision: according to the edition's head note, "The first version is from a manuscript held at Harvard; the second, at Durham University, is described in the Reconstruction as 'Draft of attempts at a translation.'" A few pages earlier the Barrett Browning edition had stated, "The Houghton Library [at Harvard] and the Durham University Library both hold slightly different versions of "Sweetest do not fly me." (21) Apparently not having inspected the manuscript at Durham, the editors put more stock in the second version because the The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction advises them that the Durham manuscript is an early version of the poem in Barrett Browning's hand. (22) The fact is that Durham Additional MS 161 contains inchoate translations of both English versions of the Greek poem. And "Sweetest do not flee me" is the first poem on the small manuscript page; the one deemed the first version by the Barrett Browning editors is actually squeezed in at the bottom of her manuscript page and is the second version.

"Sweetest, do not flee [sic] me" begins at the top of the Durham manuscript page, runs uncertainly for twelve and a half lines, then ends incompletely about two-thirds of the way down the page. This, the most complete version of the translation in Barrett Browning's hand, is as follows:
   Sweetest do not flee me
   Though my hair is grey
   Nor because you see me
   Over cheeks as red as May
   From my love and haste away
   Garland found to brightest
   Sweetest garland I will ge[illegible]
   Mark then? I mingle may
   [?Ask the] rose and lily
   Scorn for love decree me
   Lo--a garlands--dearest-[Illegible
   word] the lilies nearest
   To the roses

(The verso of this manuscript page contains a jumble of experimental gestures and discarded earlier attempts to turn the Greek into proper English verse.) Then, Barrett Browning, in a much more legible hand, wrote "Fly me not, fair creature" at the bottom of the recto, beneath "Sweetest, do not flee me" This poem is in a more finished state than the "first" translation:
   Fly me not fair creature
   Though my locks are turned to gray
   Not be my love--vows cast away
   For all the bloom of nature
   Let these garlands keep thee sage
   [Illegible word] as the truth is
   He is roses red as youth is
   With lilies white as age.

Browning's manuscript, presented above, represents a proper cleaning up and polishing of these uncertain rough drafts. But the question is who did the polishing and cleaning? Did Browning copy a later finished version of Barrett Browning's translations of the two Anacreon poems? Or did he take her failed attempts and finish them? The only finished forms of the poems are in Browning's hand. A true collaborative effort, if that be what we have, might be claimed for either poem. Before a satisfied decision can be made, additional manuscripts will have to turn up.

But what if it should turn out that both of these poems are Barrett Browning's and that Browning had no part in their existence, except to copy them on to his manuscript? Would that cast doubt on his translatorship of the other nine poems on that manuscript? I think not. The Houghton manuscript would not be the first instance of the linking of Browning and Barrett Browning manuscript poems. In 1854 the Brownings engaged in a joint effort to raise funds on behalf on the Ragged Schools Union of London. Their manuscript poems Browning's "The Twins" and Barrett Browning's "A Song for the Ragged Schools of London"--were to be sold at a fundraising bazaar. While the two poems were technically not on the same manuscript page, they were on individual pages of the same paper, and the poems were published together as a pamphlet and sold for six pence. (23) In another instance, Browning's "Here Lies Browning" in fact shares the same leaf of manuscript paper with Barrett Browning's "My Heart and I." (24) The point is that poems by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning being on the same page is not unique. The reasons for that occurrence in every case might be beyond discernment. Browning did not copy the poems in the Harvard manuscript for publication, for the manuscript is in the miniscule hand that he sometimes affected. The copy was for his own private purposes. I suggest, then, that the nine poems following "I fain would sing of Cadmus king," because they are in dispute, should appear in a Robert Browning Apocrypha.


Along with the problem of sorting out who wrote what as between Browning and Barrett Browning, there have always been problems of locating and determining the authenticity of unpublished or unacknowledged poems by Browning. Even before the poets were joined in wedlock, knowing what Browning wrote became an uncertain business on its own. In some cases bits and pieces of his juvenilia remain only because a friend, Alfred Domett, recorded them in his diary; and two substantial poems written when Browning was about fourteen years old, "The First Born of Egypt" and "The Dance of Death," exist today only because his childhood friend Sarah Flower copied them down before he destroyed them along with the other poems in a collection titled "Incognita," which his parents had failed in getting published. (25)

At the age of twenty-one Browning published Pauline (1833), long thought to be his first published poem, the title page of which gives no author. When he saw John Stuart Mill's scathing commentary on the poem ("the writer seems to be possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being"), the young Browning felt vindicated in his reluctance to expose himself as the poem's author. Only after Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had stumbled upon the poem in the British Museum, recognized the style and wrote to Browning "taxing him with its authorship" did Browning acknowledge the poem as his own. (26)

Browning continued unwilling to publish poems under his own name. In the year after Pauline, his "Sonnet" ("Eyes, calm beside thee") appeared in W. I. Fox's Monthly Repository with the mysterious signature "Z," the conventional transliteration of the seventh character in the Greek alphabet Zeta. In the same year he applied that same signature to an essay entitled "Some Strictures on a Late Article in the 'Trifler' in a Letter to the Author Thereof," which appeared in a short-lived periodical called The Trifler (1834). With the exception of Paracelsus (1835), the first publication to appear with Browning's name, he kept his literary identity secret. Thus followed in the Monthly Repository and with the same "Z" signature several more poems--"The King" in 1835 and "Porphyria," "Johannes Agricold" and "Lines" (six stanzas of what would become "James Lee's Wife") in 1836. (27) Were a poem found to be published by Browning prior to Pauline, there is all the reason in the world to believe that his own name would not have been appended and that he would have signed the poem with a Greek letter. We shall see that there is reason to suppose that the third character in the Greek alphabet, "Gamma," might well have been his choice.

Just as I was completing my editorial preparation of the "Unpublished or Uncollected" poems of Browning for volume 17 of the Ohio Browning edition, I read Joseph Phelan's note on the four lines beginning "Now You Are Young" in The Journal of Browning Studies. (28) Phelan raises some questions about these lines that I had included as number 30 among the ninety-nine unpublished or uncollected poems. The source for the five lines in my edition was a letter from Browning to Isa Blagden. This letter was to settle a difference among reactions to recent criticism of Barrett Browning's recently published Poems Before Congress (1860). A lengthy review in Blackwood's, entitled "Poetic Aberrations," was a fierce attack on "women interfering in politics." Following his general diatribe, the reviewer turned to comment on Barrett Browning: "We have not made these remarks without an appropriate text. We have just received a thin volume of verses--for we cannot call them poems ... and very sincerely do we regret, for her sake, that she has fallen into the error of publishing anything so ineffably bad." (29) Also The Saturday Review had condemned Barrett Browning for a want of patriotism and for an "idolatrous devotion to Napoleon III." (30) According to Barrett Browning's letter of 14 April 1860 to Isa Blagden, Browning at first upset by these unwarranted attacks--"Now turns a hero's face to all this cannonading. He does'nt care a straw he says"--and Barrett Browning" cant care either." (31)

Thus in his 19 April 1860 letter to Isa Blagden, Browning adopts a facetious tone: "You are a dear goose to care three oat-grains for the 'Saturday Review." He assures their friend that his wife does not care that she "finds herself just as directly attacked by every political article that it prints[.] Same of Blackwood,--except that he is too great an ass: we should like to be the weekly & monthly annoyance of these fellows to the world's end." Then Browning closes the letter quoting the lines of poetry in question in an obvious effort to lift the spirits of Isa Blagden:

As long as there's no lying, let us have as much Saturday Reviewing as you like: they're our natural enemies, and I rather enjoy the practise of "knagging" myself--don't I, Isa? Kiss & be friends, "my own one"--as the poet says, and how does he go on saying? Why, most appropriately--"Now you are young, and when you are older--Now you're coy, and when you're grown bolder,--Now you're a maid--and when you're my wife--Till the end of this year--and the close of my life--I ever will love thee!" Fact! Goodbye & God bless you! (32)

The phrase "my own one" is from Browning's friend Alfred Domett's "Song," published in his Poems (1833). The phrase appears twice in Domett's poem, in the first ("I love thee, my own one! How much can I tell?") and twenty-fifth ("Then my own one I know will confide in me still") lines, and three of the seven quatrains end with "I love thee, and--love thee again!" I had assumed that Browning meant for his lines beginning "Now you are young" to be a parody of Domett's poem, which also has a four-stress line. (33)

The surprising disclosure in Phelan's short article, which upset all my assumptions, is that the five lines in the letter to Blagden are but the second stanza of a poem that was published in The Literary Gazette in 1822 when Browning was ten years old. Phelan did not include the entire poem in his note; here it is:
   To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath

   I swear by the Bible and all that is sacred:
   I swear by the passions, Love, Fear and Hatred:
   I swear by my life, and all I hold dear:
   I swear by this Earth and everything here,
   That I will ever love thee!

   Now you are young, and when you are older:
   Now you are modest, and when you are bolder:
   Now you are maid, and when you're my wife:
   From this time forth to the end of my life,
   I will ever love thee!

   Now parents are with you, and were you alone:
   In poverty, grandeur, or on a throne:
   In sickness, in health, in pain or prosperity:
   Though you treated poor me with the utmost severity
   Yet, I would ever love thee!

   I'll love thee now thou art in thy prime:
   I'll love thee when thy life shall decline:
   I'll love thee while living, and when thou art dead,
   And I strewing flowers around thy cold head,--Yet
   still, Oh, then I'll love thee!

   And if time ever proves these words to be lies,
   May yon croaking raven pluck out my eyes;
   May I be degraded from man to a beast;
   May these things happen, but these be the least;
   And may you (which is far worse than all)
   Be standing just by, and smile at my fall! (34)

There are some differences between the second stanza as it first appeared in 1822 and the way Browning remembered it in 1860, but the intervening thirty-nine years easily account for such discrepancies. Phelan allows the possibility that "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" was a product of Browning's precociousness, that he "might have contributed these verses himself," but he finds it much more likely that "the mature Browning is quoting from memory some lines dimly remembered from his early youth"; that is, he is quoting from a poem that he read in his youth. (35)

This is not at all an unreasonable conclusion, but I think a better case can be made that Browning was remembering lines that he himself had written in his youth--and they were not so dimly remembered either. "I ever will love thee!" is not far at all from "I will ever love thee!"; and the other two differences, "modest" becoming "coy" and "are" becoming "grown," are, significantly, the sorts of revisionary improvements that Browning is well known for (his habit of substituting strong verbs for the verb to be is well documented: in The Inn Album manuscript, "be" becomes "beam"; in Pacchiarotto, "be" becomes "blush"). (36)

But first we must consider whether "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" is the sort of poem that Browning might have written when he was ten years old. In Browning's Youth, John Maynard remarks, "Browning was almost from babyhood a boy of very quick, even exceptional intelligence and varied talent. Anecdotes stress his cleverness, active imagination, and liveliness, and there are records of truly precocious, if imitative, displays of artistic and literary talent." (37) Though the reliability of William Sharp's Life and Writings of Robert Browning is sometimes held in doubt, I think in some instances he might be given the benefit of a hearing, especially when he avows that he is relying upon what he was told by members of the Browning family as well as intimate friends of Browning's. Sharp says of Browning as a boy:

He was ten when, after several passions malheureuses, this precocious Lothario plunged into a love affair whose intensity was only equaled by its hopelessness. A trifle of fifteen years' seniority and a husband complicate matters, but it was not till after the reckless expenditure of a Horatian ode upon an unclassical mistress that he gave up hope. The outcome of this was what the elder Browning regarded as a startling effusion of much Byronic verse. The young Robert yearned for wastes of ocean and illimitable sands, for dark eyes and burning caresses, for despair that nothing could quench but the silent grave, and, in particular, for hollow mocking laughter. (38)

Maynard remarks that Robert as a boy had "a capacity for strong feeling," and Browning himself asserted that he had been born "supremely passionate" as surely as he had been born with yellow hair. His sister Sarianna confirms his "passionate temperament." Though Maynard expresses reservations about Sharp's account, he himself offers examples of the young Browning's love for various women, known and mysterious, one of whom was his Aunt Jemima. And when he was seven or eight Robert recorded in his diary: "Married two wives this morning." (39)

Browning might well have transformed his youthful passions into verse; and the collection "Incondita," completed when he was fourteen and destroyed after his parents were unsuccessful in finding a publisher for it, might well have contained passionate poems written at age ten. Browning's father spoke of his son's "juvenile performances" as "remarkably beautiful"; of one of those early poems he said, "had I not seen it in his own handwriting I never would have believed it to have been the production of a child." (40) Browning told Elizabeth Barrett that he had made imitations of Ossian when he was only five and thought well enough of them to have "laid [them] up for posterity under the cushion of a great armchair," even though at the same time he "knew they were nonsense." (41)

"To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" is not what one would normally consider to be the work of a ten-year-old child, nor are Barrett Browning's "Come Forth Thou Blessed Strain of Poetry," "To Mama and Papa" or "To Spring," all poems written when she was ten years old. (42) Still, Browning is obviously a special case. While Elizabeth as a girl was yearning for the spirit of poetry and expressing "Sweet Affection" for her parents, the young Robert was overcome by the kind of romantic feelings of love and devotion that are expressed in "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath." I am not sure there is anything all that unusual in that fact. What is remarkable is that he was capable of expressing those feelings in verse that is far beyond the capabilities of almost all ten year olds.

The submission note for "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" was sent to William Jerdan, editor of The Literary Gazette, a journal that depended upon submissions from the general public for its weekly "original poetry" section; this letter shows the same ambivalence that Browning had expressed about his Ossian imitations: it combines pride in the poet's ability with a measure of uncertainty about how his poem might be judged: "Dear Sir,--Knowing you are always disposed to give publicity to the first productions of genius, I enclose the following lines. If you think them worthy of inclusion in your very respectable journal, it will be the means of stimulating me to further exertion. If you consider them worthless, I beg you will let me know the fate of them in your notice to correspondents." The editor not only published the verse but preceded it with encouraging words: "The world won't believe that we get the best poetry in the world sent to us for insertion: the following is proof from an utterly unknown contributor" (43) This assessment would have been joyfully received by the young Browning were he that unknown poet who had signed "To Caroline" only with the Greek letter "Gamma."

The most compelling reason for supposing that Browning is that boy is the very fact that the forty-two-year-old poet remembered the second stanza and was able to write it down in that letter to Isa Blagden. When "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" appeared in The Literary Gazette in 1822, it was one short poem crowded onto a page crammed with poems (by other unknown poets) such as "In a Meadow Green, at the Breaking of Daie," "By a maiden aunt of the family of C--.," "Sonnet To Ideal Beauty," "By the author of 'The Serpent,' an unpublished allegory," "Song" by J. M., and "Like the Low Murmur of the Secret Stream," "By a lover of sound verse and sound principles, &&." The poems in this undistinguished group would surely have dwindled and died in the minds of their 1822 readers within a few minutes of reading. How could Browning, forty-two years after the publication of this obscure unmemorable poem, published among a host of equally obscure and unmemorable poems, have dipped his pen into the inkwell and drawn out the second verse of "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" had he not been its author all those years ago? And he would have remembered it over all those years because it happened to have been the first poem he ever got published. As an adult, Browning was able to recollect verses that he had written as a boy, for example, "Verses on the Rev. Thomas Ready and His School at Peckham," which he recited to Alfred Domett fifty-three years later. (44)

There are indeed other reasons to attribute the signature Gamma to the ten-year-old Browning. Rhetorical features in "To Caroline" are also found in the young Browning's "The Dance of Death," which might well have been one of the poems in the destroyed collection "Incondita" (45) As "The Dance of Death" was modeled on Coleridge's "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," "To Caroline" follows a similar set-of-three mode in the passions it depicts "Love, Fear, and Hatred." Also, in "The Dance of Death," Browning repeats the initial word of consecutive lines: "Where the rank grass grows in deserted streets[,] / Where the terrified stranger no passer meets[,] / Where around the putrid air ..." (34-36); and anaphora is a major feature of "To Caroline": "I swear" repeated four times, and "Now you," "I'll love thee," and "May" repeated thrice. Although "To Caroline" could not have been addressed to the married woman Sharp alluded to as the object of the ten-year-old's Byronic effusions (Caroline is a "maid" and still living with her parents), the woman addressed here could be one of the other unfortunate passions of the youthful Browning that Sharp referred to; and the woman addressed here, the poem implies, is older than the speaker in the poem: in the penultimate stanza the male speaker specifies the consequences of their age difference; he assumes that she, who is already in her "prime," will die and leave him:
   I'll love thee now thou art in thy prime:
   I'll love thee when thy life shall decline:
   I'll love thee while living, and when thou art dead,
   And I strewing flowers around thy cold head,--
   Yet still, Oh, then I'll love thee!

This is how a ten-year-old boy might size things up were he in love with a woman in her prime. The protestation that if he is not telling the truth, may "yon croaking raven pluck out my eyes" seems appropriate to a precocious boy's imagination.

Has a case been made for Browning's authorship of "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath"? Perhaps, but it must be admitted that there is still reasonable doubt. After all, the boy Browning might well have been drawn to the poem in The Literary Gazette because it seemed just the thing to express his feelings as well as his situation in relation to one of those older women; he might even have cut the poem out of the Gazette and committed it to memory so that he could show off with a recitation before the woman. In 1860, writing to Blagden, he might have merged in his memory "To Caroline" and Domett's "Song," and this could have happened whether Browning actually wrote "To Caroline" or just memorized the poem of another. We just cannot know. Nonetheless, I think it is more likely than Phelan allowed that Browning wrote the poem at age ten.

Perhaps as other poems with similar authorial uncertainty as "To Caroline.--A Lover's Oath" come to light we shall need to place them in a Browning Apocrypha along with the translations from Anacreontic verse in Browning's hand that make up the Harvard manuscript--"The earth drinks herself dark with the fast-falling rain," "In this shadow of Bathyllus," "When I drink the red red wine" "Where Bacchus enters bright and bold," "O Love, the Muses bound him" "Blessings on thee, Grasshopper," and "I love to see a glad old man"--perhaps even "Thou indeed, little swallow" and "Fly me not, fair creature," together with "Sweetest, do not fly me." "Horns to Bulls," a translation of Anacreontic verse not in the Harvard manuscript, has been properly acknowledged as Browning's translation and has been placed in volume 17 of The Complete Works of Robert Browning. His translation of "I fain would sing of Cadmus king" needs to be added to his "Unpublished or Uncollected Poems." Given the current interest in digital editions, the proper venue for this poem as well as for the proposed Browning Apocrypha is the future digital version of The Complete Works of Robert Browning that its general editor, Allan C. Dooley, refers to in his Foreword to the final print volume. (46)

Hendrix College


(1) William Clyde DeVane, A Browning Handbook, 2nd. ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), 571.

(2) John Pettigrew, ed., Robert Browning: The Poems (Yale U. Press, 1981), 2:948-51; M. H. Shackford, "The Authorship of 'Aeschylus' Soliloquy,'" TLS (21 March 1942), 144; G. D. Hobson, "Aeschylus' Soliloquy" TLS (11 April 1942), 189.

(3) Margaret Reynolds and Barbara Rosenbaum, "'Aeschylus' Soliloquy' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning," Victorian Poetry 35 (1997): 329-48; Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone, and Beverly Taylor, eds., Last Poems (1862), Works Unpublished in EBB'S Lifetime, vol. 5, The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), 651-57.

(4) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:357.

(5) Robert Browning's MS also contains the original Greek, and he had written where a title would ordinarily appear "Literally translated." Ashby Bland Crowder and Allan C. Dooley, eds. The Complete Works of Robert Browning, vol. 17 (Athens: Ohio U. Press, 2011), 138, 457-58.

(6) Donaldson et al., Works 5:358.

(7) Browning's translation from Anacreon was first published by Pettigrew, Poems, 2:943. Thanks to Susan Halpert, Reference Librarian at the Houghton Library, for her assistance.

(8) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:673. Both Barrett Browning and Browning also translated Giambattista, Felice Zappi, Dante, and Homer, though different passages (Donaldson et al., Works, 5.613, 327, and 360-64, 689, Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works 17:405-6, 401, 465).

(9) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:152. This edition suggests that this ode to the swallow might originally have been meant for a "Classical Album" planned by Anne Thomson in 1845 (5:680), but no evidence is provided.

(10) I am indebted to the Greek scholar Rebecca Resinski of Hendrix College for her invaluable knowledge and insights. The Greek version of the poem can be found in J. M. Edmonds, ed., Elegy and Iambus ... with the Anacreontea (Harvard U. Press, 1931), 2:52-54 (the volume renumbers starting with the Anacreontea).

(11) John D. Gordan, ed., Joint Lives, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: A Selection of Works from the Henry W and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature (New York: New York Public Library, 1975), 31.

(12) Alethea Hayter, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (London: Faber, 1962), 222-23.

(13) Quoted in Donaldson et al., Works, 5:2.

(14) Margaret Foster, Elizabeth Barrett Browning ... A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 368-69.

(15) That uncertainty is enhanced by the fact that the Armstrong Browning Library manuscript has been "revised in a later hand" (Donaldson et al., Works, 5:151).

(16) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:680.

(17) Philip Kelley and Betty Coley, The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 1984), 354-55; Donaldson et al., Works, 5:xx.

(18) Michael Millgate, Testamentary Acts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 17; see Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:382.

(19) Donaldson et al., Works, xix, xx.

(20) The Greek version is in Edmonds, Elegy, 2:85.

(21) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:685, 680.

(22) Yet the Barrett Browning edition uses as copy text Browning's manuscript; see Donaldson et al., Works, 5:680.

(23) The four-leaf manuscript, at the Morgan Library, New York City, has a title page in Barrett Browning's hand, which reads "Two poems by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning"; her "A Song" is signed and dated 20 March 1854, and his "The Twins" is signed and dated 30 March 1854 (I appreciate the assistance of Alison Dickey and Carolyn Vega of the Morgan Library). William Irving and Park Honan, The Book, the Ring, and the Poet (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 321; Two Poems by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (London: Chapman and Hall, 1854); Donaldson et al., Works, 5:29.

(24) Browning jotted his epitaph on p.41v, about midway through Barrett Browning's draft of "My Heart and r' (Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:409).

(25) E.A. Horsman, ed., Diary of Alfred Domett, 1872-1885 (Oxford U. Press 1953), 73; Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:391.

(26) DeVane, Browning Handbook, 46, 47.

(27) Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:395, 396; Pettigrew, Poems, 1:1084, 1149; John Maynard, Browning's Youth (Harvard U. Press, 1977), 109. In 1836, Browning also helped John Forster finish his Life of Stafford, contributing substantial portions, but his name did not appear as one of the authors.

(28) Joseph Phelan, "Now You Are Young,'" The Journal of Browning Studies 1 (2010): 87. I was at first prepared to accept Phelan's suggestion that the lines and the poem from which they came were not Browning's, and I included a sentence at the end of the first paragraph on 17:388 to the effect that the lines should be set aside; as I considered further and read the entire poem from which Browning quoted, I decided to include them in the volume. Ohio University Press gave assurance that the contradictory sentence at the end of the first paragraph on page 388 of vol. 17 would be removed before the volume was published; however, the sentence remains and should be stricken from all copies.

(29) William Edmonstoune Aytoun, "Poetic Aberrations," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (April 1860), 490-94, quoted in Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden, 1850-1861, ed. Philip Kelley and Sandra Donaldson (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 2009), 327.

(30) Charles Synge Christopher Bowen, rev. in The Saturday Review, 31 March 1860, 403, quoted in Florentine Friends, 330.

(31) Kelley and Donaldson, Florentine Friends, 331.

(32) Kelley and Donaldson, Florentine Friends, 331-32.

(33) Alfred Domett, Poems (London, 1833), 200-1.

(34) The Literary Gazette (9 November 1822): 714. Although the poem was reprinted in the Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines 12 (October 1822-April 1823): 478, there is little chance that Browning would have seen the poem in this American periodical.

(35) Phelan, "Now You Are Young,'" 87.

(36) Ashby Bland Crowder, ed., The Complete Works of Robert Browning, vol. 13 (Athens: Ohio U. Press, 1995), 80: see textual note for The Inn Album, pt. 4:458 and Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper, 156: see textual note for line 404. For more on Browning's revisionary practice of replacing weak verbs, as well as his habit of substituting brisk monosyllables for a two- or three-syllable words, see Ashby Bland Crowder, "Stages in the Composition of The Inn Album," Browning Institute Studies (1977): 37-74, esp. 50-51, and "Browning and How He Worked in Good Temper" Victorian Authors and Their Works: Revision, Motivations, and Modes, ed. Judith Kennedy (Athens: Ohio U. Press, 1991), 72-98, esp. 85-86.

(37) Maynard, Browning's Youth, 5.

(38) William Sharp, Life and Writings of Robert Browning (London [1890]), 27. Clyde de L. Ryals, The Life of Robert Browning (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 5, notes that Browning's juvenile poem "The First-Born of Egypt" displays the "general Romantic predilection for apocalypse" and, as well, the Byronic hero's claim to vast experience: "I have seen many climes but that dred hour / Hath left its burning impress on my soul / Never to be erased ... " (Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:92, lines 29-31).

(39) Maynard, Browning's Youth, 5, 164; The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner, 2 vols. (Harvard U. Press, 1969), 1:337, quoted in Maynard, Browning's Youth, 6.

(40) Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (London: Smith, Elder, 1908), 32.

(41) Kintner, Letters, 2:998-99; see also F. G. Kenyon, ed., Robert Browning and Alfred Domett (London: Smith, Elder, 1906), 33, and W. Hall Griffin and H. C. Minchin, The Life of Robert Browning, 3rd. ed. (London: Methuen, 1938), 30.

(42) Donaldson et al., Works, 5:207, 208, 209.

(43) The Literary Gazette, 714.

(44) Horsman, Diary, 73.

(45) See Editorial Notes for "The First-Born of Egypt" and "The Dance of Death" in Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:391, 393.

(46) Crowder and Dooley, Complete Works, 17:xi.
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Author:Crowder, Ashby Bland
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Date:Jun 22, 2012
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