This day has been memorable by my seeing Mr and
Mrs Browning for the first time. At noon Mr Browning called
upon us. His grasp of the hand gives new value to life,
revealing so much fervor and sincerity of nature. He invited
us most cordially to go at eight and spend the evening. * * *
* * and so at eight we went to the illustrious Casa Guidi. We
found a little boy in an upper hall, with a servant. I asked
him if he were Pennini, and he said 'Yes'. In the dim light he
looked like a wiaf of poetry, drifted up into the dark corner,
with long, curling, brown hair and buff silk tunic,
embroidered with white. He took us through an ante-room, into
the drawing-room, and out upon the balcony. In a brighter
light he was lovelier still, with brown eyes, fair skin, and a
slender, graceful figure. In a moment Mr Browning appeared,
and welcomed us cordially. In a church near by, opposite the
house, a melodious choir was chanting. The balcony was full of
flowers in vases, growing and blooming. In the dark blue
fields of space overhead, the stars, flowers of light, were
also blossoming, one by one, as evening deepened. The music,
the stars, the flowers, Mr Browning and his child, all
combined to entrance my wits.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Michele Gordigiani, 1858
We soon returned to the drawing-room - a lofty,
spacious apartment, hung with gobelin tapestry and pictures, and
filled with carved furniture and objects of vertý. Everything
harmonized - Poet, Poetess, child, house, the rich air and the
starry night. Pennini was an Ariel, flitting about, gentle,
tricksy, and intellectual - but it rather disturbed my dream 'of
the golden prime of the good Haroun Alraschid' to have a certain
Mr and Mrs E[ckley] come in, and then Mr B. and his daughter. Mr
B. is always welcome to the eye, with his snowdrift of beard and
hair, and handsome face; but he looked too inflexible and hard
for that society. The three poets, Mr Browning, Mr B. and Mr
Hawthorne, both their heads together in a triangle, and talked a
great deal, while Mrs E. told me what an angel Mrs Browning is;
and Mr E. talked to Ada, who looked charmingly, in white muslin
and blue ribbons - her face a gleam of delight, because she was
so glad to be at Casa Guidi. Tea was brought and served on a
long, narrow table, placed before a sofa, and Mrs Browning
presided, assisted by Mrs E. We all gathered at this table.
Pennini handed about the cake, graceful as Ganymede. Mr Browning
introduced the subject of spiritism, and there was an animated
talk. Mr Browning cannot believe, and Mrs Browning cannot help
believing. They kindly expressed regret that they were going to
the seaside in a few weeks, since we were to stay in Florence,
and hoped to find us here on their return. Mrs Browning wished
me to take Una to see her, and Mr Browning exclaimed, 'You must
send Pennini to see their boy, Julian - such a fine creature!
with eyes kindling - Pennini must see him, and the little Rose,
a dearest little thing'. This I record for my children's sake,
Then Mrs Browning came out to us - very small, delicate, dark and expressive. She looked like a spirit. A cloud of hair falls on each side her face in curls, so as partly to veil her features. But out of the veil look sweet, sad eyes, musing and far-seeing and weird. Her fairy fingers seem too airy to hold, and yet their pressure was very firm and strong. The smallest possible amount of substance encloses her soul, and every particle of it is infused with heart and intellect. I was never conscious of so little unredeemed, perishable dust in any human being. I gave her a branch of small pink roses, twelve on the stem, in various stages of bloom, which I had plucked from our terrace vine, and she fastened it in her black-velvet dress with most lovely effect to her whole aspect. Such roses were fit emblems of her.
" agnificent, prophetic, this new Corinne. She never confounded relations; but kept a hundred fine threads in her hand, without crossing or entangling any." So wrote Emerson on of New England's Margaret Fuller. Born in 1810, her tragic death by drowning occurred 16 July 1850. At age of six Margaret read Latin as well as English and soon after Greek, at 15 revelling in Madame de StaŽl and Petrarch.
She travelled to Italy as a journalist, already deeply committed to women's position.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that
The weather was intensely hot; her health was feeble and delicate; the dead and dying were around her in every form of pain and horror; but she never shrank from the duty she had assumed. Her heart and soul were in the cause for which these men had fought, and all was done that a woman could do to comfort them in their sufferings. I have seen the eyes of the dying, as she moved among them, extended upon opposite beds, meet in commendation of her unwearied kindness; and the friends of those who then passed away may derive consolation from the assurance that nothing of tenderness and attention was wanting to soothe their last moments. And I have heard many of those who recovered speak with all the passionate fervor of the Italian nature of her, whose sympathy and compassion throughout their long illness fulfilled all the offices of love and affection. Mazzini, the chief of the Triumvirate, - who, better than any man in Rome, knew her worth, - often expressed to me his admiration of her high character; and the Princess Belgioioso, to whom was assigned the charge of the Papal Palace on the Quirinal, which was converted on this occasion into a hospital, was enthusiastic in her praise. And in a letter which I received not long since from this lady, who is gaining the bread of an exile by teaching languages in Constantinople, she alludes with much feeling to the support afforded by Miss Fuller to the Republican party in Italy. Here, in Rome, she is still spoken of in terms of regard and endearment; and the announcement of her death was received with a degree of sorrow which is not often bestowed upon a foreigner, and especially one of a different faith.
She informed me that she had sent for me to place in my hands a packet of important papers, which she wished me to keep for the present, and, in the event of her death, to transmit it to her friends in the United States. She then stated that she was married to the Marquis Ossoli, who was in command of a battery on the Pincian Hill. . . The packet which she placed in my possession, contained, she said, the certificates of her marriage, and of the birth and baptism of her child. . .
On the same day the French army entered Rome, and, the gates being opened, Madame Ossoli, accompanied by the Marquis, immediately proceeded to Rieti, a village lying at the base of the Abruzzi Mountains, where she had left her child in the charge of a confidential nurse, formerly in the service of the Ossoli family. She remained, as you are no doubt aware, some months at Rieti, whence she removed to Florence, where she resided until her ill-fated departure for the United States. During this period I received several letters from her, all of which, though reluctant to part with them, I inclose to your address, in compliance with your request.
One is Michelangelo's 'Aurora' from the Medici
Tomb in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo. The Republic of
Florence commissioned these sculptures. Later Michelangelo wrote
a poem for Dawn to speak in which she desires not to awake while
the Medici have robbed Florence of her freedom. Elizabeth
Barrett Browning wrote about it at length in Casa Guidi
Windows and used it for the title of her epic poem, Aurora
The other is Hiram Powers' 'Greek Slave'. It appears to be about the War of Greek Independence, in whose cause Lord Byron fought and died. But it is really about Hiram Powers' own knowledge of himself as both American and Native American, and about Italy, which in this period was ground under by Austria, Spain, France and the Pope, as had Greece been by Turkey. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was Hiram Powers' great friend and admirer, spoke of him as part Native American. Another sculpture of his is 'The Last of her Tribe', in which an Indian maiden is fleeing from her persecutors. It is exquisite. Elizabeth wrote a powerful sonnet about the 'Greek Slave', which Queen Victoria read. The Queen also saw the sculpture for it was at the centre of the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition she visited, leaning upon her Prince Consort's arm. Margaret Fuller had written:
Hiram Powers' 'Greek Slave' is life size in its proportions. But Hiram Powers also sculpted colossal statues, as did similarly the tiny Harriet Hosmer. One gigantic statue of Calhoun by Powers was shipwrecked, if indeed it did not cause the wreck of the ship on which the Fuller-Ossoli family perished; one marble effigy of a statesman never reached America, another ended at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. I show his Calhoun in the surviving plaster cast that remained in his studio in Florence until it was purchased by the Smithsonian Museum in 1963.
I am absurdly fearful about this voyage. Various little omens have combined to give me a dark feeling. Among others, just now we hear of the wreck of the Westmoreland bearing Power's 'Eve."
Angiolino was nourished by means of a goat on shipboard, there being no refrigeration for the Victorian sea voyage. Small pox broke out, Angiolino miraculously recovering, but the Captain died. The first mate failed in navigating the ship and it wrecked off Fire Island. "Neither Margaret's body, nor that of her husband was ever recovered; that of little Angelo was borne through the breakers by a sailor and laid lifeless on the sands. The manuscript of her "History of Italy" was lost in the wreck." The still warm bodies of steward and child and trunk with letters between her husband and herself were all that survived."
IV. The Sea Change
It was this drowning of her friend, in a ship
named the 'Elizabeth', 19 July 1850, that paradoxically released
Elizabeth to write Aurora Leigh, the best-selling epic
novel poem, published in 1856, whose two heroines she models
upon Margaret Fuller and upon herself. Aurora Leigh in the poem is based
on the two Victorian professional women prose writers, Harriet
Martineau and Margaret Fuller, though added to them are
Elizabeth's social status of wealth and breeding and her love
of Florence, initially taught her by Madame de Stael, while
Marian Erle, as the gypsy who teaches herself to read out of books thrown
in the rubbish, who is raped, and who bears a child out of
wedlock, an 'Angelo', a pomegranate,
represents Elizabeth's own predicament as the racial outsider,
vulnerable, powerless and poor. In the poem there are not two
babies, only one, the surviving Pen Browning. The drowning of
Margaret and her baby in the ship 'Elizabeth' thus became a
mirroring surrogate for herself and her child, atoning for the
death of her brother, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, 'Bro',
of the slave estates. She had been blocked from writing this
intended magnum opus. Though she had already
experimented in Lady Geraldine's Courtship, the poem
in which she fictionally proposed marriage to Alfred Tennyson
and Robert Browning. Now, day after day, she feverishly wrote
Aurora Leigh's nine books, the magnificent epic poem,
set in Malvern, London, Paris and Florence, giving back to
Margaret her drowned voice, resurrecting her and her child -
with a sea change - into its pages. A fine tribute from one
woman to another, one friend to another. She
stuffed its pages between the cushions of her invalid chair
when her child came in to play and visitors, such as the
Hawthorne family, friends of Margaret, came to call. We recall
Hawthorne also made her his Brook Farm heroine in his 1852 Blithedale
Romance, Zenobia, who drowns. Thus in her short-lived
forty years she is Margaret, Corinna, Aurora and Zenobia.
Browning. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. A cura di John
Robert Glorney Bolton e Julia Bolton Holloway. Harmondsworth:
Browning. Aurora Leigh: Romanzo in versi. Trad.
italiano da Bruna Dell'Agnese. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2002.
Chevigny. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life
and Writings. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1976.
Joseph Jay Deiss. The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller. New York: Crowell, 1969.
Bicentennial Panel - A Woman for the Twenty-First Century. The
Journal of Universal Unitarian History 34 (2011), 1-32.