Browning, Robert (1812–1889)
Famous English poet, born on May 7, 1812 in London, England
and died on December 12, 1889 in Venice, Italy. He sat
at a séance with the medium Daniel D. Home, after which
Browning published his satirical poem ‘‘Mr. Sludge, the Medium,’’
which was generally thought to refer to Home. It contains
these lines
Now don’t, sir! Don’t expose me! Just this once!
This was the first and only time, I’ll swear.
Look at me—see, I kneel—the only time,
I swear I ever cheated . . .
‘‘Well, Sir, since you press—
(How do you tease the whole thing out of me!)
Now for it, then! . . .
I cheated when I could.
Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work,
Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink,
Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match,
And all the rest—’’
It was generally supposed that the poet detected in Home
a fraud, but others suggested that Browning was motivated by
spiteful jealousy on account of his wife’s (Elizabeth Barrett) interest
in Spiritualism. Evidence in the book Elizabeth Barrett
Browning Letters to Her Sister (London, 1929) suggests that
Browning’s husband strongly resented her attitude and that
Spiritualism was tabooed in their house. Home himself discussed
the incident in his book Incidents in My Life (1874) and
preferred a psychological explanation for the poet’s verse.
A wreath of clematis, which the children had gathered in the
garden, moved from the table and started to glide toward Elizabeth
Browning. Robert Browning, seated at the opposite side,
came and stood behind his wife. Then the wreath rose and
came to rest on Elizabeth’s head. Some of the sitters thought
Robert was annoyed at not getting the crown himself, but he
voluntarily stated that imposture was out of question. Later he
evolved a theory of artificial hands affixed to Home’s chair.
In his biography of Browning, G. K. Chesterton ridicules the
story and says that Browning ‘‘did not dislike Spiritualism but
Spiritualists.’’ At any rate, the poem harmed Home’s reputation
substantially. It was widely quoted in the press, even in
America, where Sarah Helen Whitman, the poet to whom some
of the finest gems of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry were written, felt
prompted to write to a paper and brand it as a ‘‘blot on Browning’s
‘scutcheon.’’
In spite of Browning’s hostility toward Home, tradition has
it that Robert Browning was well versed in the Hermetic tradition
of occult knowledge and used Hermetic imagery in some
of his poems. In My Browning Family Album (1979), Vivienne
Browning, president of the Browning Society, revealed that her
father, Vyvyan Deacon, was a practicing medium and lecturer
on the occult and Theosophy and told her that he was carrying
on the tradition of his grandfather Reuben Browning, the
poet’s uncle, who was a Rosicrucian who shared his secret
knowledge and training with his nephew Robert.
Sources
Browning, Robert. Dramatis Personae. London Chapman
and Hall, 1864.
Browning, Vivienne. My Browning Family Album. London
Springwood Books, 1979.
Porter, Katherine H. Through a Glass Darkly Spiritualism in
the Browning Circle. Lawrence, Kans. University of Kansas
Press, 1958.