Robert Browning and Henry Kirke White

Joseph Phelan

One of the earliest letters of Robert Browning’s courtship correspondence concludes with a brief reference to Kirke White: ‘My head aches a little, to day too, and as poor dear Kirke White said to the moon, from his heap of mathematical papers, “I throw aside the learned sheet,—I cannot choose but gaze she looks so—mildly sweet”—out on the foolish phrase, but there’s hard rhyming without it!’[1] The slightly condescending tone of Browning’s allusion to Kirke White’s fate (‘poor dear Kirke White’) continues in his mocking reference to the expression ‘mildly sweet’, with its suggestion that Kirke White’s poetry was sometimes driven as much by the exigencies of rhyme as by the demands of sense and feeling. The poem Browning cites is the fifth of a series of fragments on the moon, recovered, as the note in Southey’s Remains of Henry Kirke White informs the reader, from ‘the back of his mathematical papers, during the few moments of the last year of his life, in which he suffered himself to follow the impulse of his genius’; there was a copy of Southey’s Remains in the Browning family’s library, inscribed with his sister Sarianna’s name.[2]

            In spite of this condescending tone, and the relative scarcity of references to Kirke White in Browning’s work, there are unquestionably aspects of Kirke White’s history and poetry that would have appealed strongly to Browning; and it is possible to trace faint reverberations of this interest in Browning’s work. Like many of his contemporaries, Browning was fascinated by lives of unfulfilled poetic promise. One of his very few forays into prose criticism was a defence of Chatterton from the charge that he was a fraudster who deliberately deceived his patrons.[3] The image of Chatterton that emerges from Browning’s essay, published anonymously and written in his typically constricted and knotty prose, is not dissimilar from that of Kirke White, with the poet’s final hours spent surrounded by the detritus of his thwarted creativity: ‘When he killed himself his room was found “strewn thick over with torn papers”’.[4] Kirke White’s liking for the macabre – the ‘graveyard poems’, as this site calls them – would also have attracted Browning’s attention. ‘The Dance of the Consumptives’ includes some lines that Browning might have remembered, consciously or unconsciously, when writing his own poem ‘Mesmerism’ (1855). In Kirke White’s ‘eccentric drama’, as Southey labels it, the consumptives see their impending fate imaged in the world around them:

Hark! Hark! The death-watch ticks!
  See, see, the winding-sheet!
    Our dance is done,
    Our race is run,
  And we must lie at the alder’s feet![5]

‘Mesmerism’ begins with a similarly portentous night-time scene, as the speaker of the poem attempts to use his occult powers to summon his absent lover:

If at night, when doors are shut,
And the wood-worm picks,
And the death-watch ticks,
And the bar has a flag of smut,
And a cat’s in the water-butt[.] (ll. 6-10)

The likelihood that this is a submerged reminiscence of Kirke White is increased by Browning’s acknowledgement, in a much later letter, that some of Kirke White’s lines remained embedded in his memory for many years. In a letter from Venice of 13 October 1880 to Mrs Thomas Fitzgerald, he quoted some lines from ‘On Disappointment’, one of the poems inlaid into Southey’s sketch of Kirke White’s life. The memory of these lines seems, again, to have been prompted by the idea of a life of unfulfilled or thwarted artistic promise; in this case, that of Giovanni Paisiello, whose opera on the Barber of Seville was wholly eclipsed by Rossini’s. A theatre in Venice put on a performance of this forgotten work, which Browning – much to his relief – had to miss due to a dinner engagement; on hearing about this, the manager of the theatre arranged for an additional performance for Browning’s benefit, which he felt obliged to attend: ‘so to-night somebody is to incline a studious and respectful ear to the “music old, nay, obsolete – which once was sweet, Oh passing sweet Though now ’tis past away.” (Whose lines are those, my learned lady? I know, although I have not seen them for half a century: I spare your guessing and say – Kirke White’s: only, my memory is at fault.)’[6] Browning’s memory was not very much at fault; here are the lines as they appear in the Remains:

    The most beloved on earth
     Not long survives to-day;
  So music past is obsolete,
   And yet ’twas sweet, ’twas passing sweet,
    But now ’tis gone away.
      Thus does the shade
      In memory fade,
When in forsaken tomb the form belov’d is laid.[7]

Browning’s reference to Kirke White in this letter combines two of his preoccupations: the occluded precursor figure, with Paesiello playing Sordello to Rossini’s Dante, and the mysteriously poignant sound of music which has lost its power to charm and enthral. Adding in the Venetian context leads us to ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, one of the Men and Women poems, in which a staid and reserved Englishman hears the once popular music of the Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi and conjures up in his imagination a lost world of pleasure and sensual indulgence played out against the backdrop of the composer’s ‘lesser thirds’ and ‘sixths diminished’:

Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
‘Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!’

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death came tacitly and took them where they never see the sun. (ll. 25-30)

Music features in a number of Browning’s poems, and it is almost invariably associated with a transient glory of this kind, a time-bound artistic structure which, in the days before recorded sound, disappeared for ever at the end of the performance.

            It is possible, though unlikely, that further references to Kirke White might turn up in Browning’s as-yet-unpublished correspondence. The reference to ‘fifty years’ in the letter to Mrs Fitzgerald is not to be taken literally – fifty was a number Browning often used to mean ‘a lot’ – but it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that he read Kirke White’s poems in his youth when everyone else was reading them. Browning’s engagement with Kirke White’s work is part of a pattern of poetic indebtedness to minor contemporaries in his work that deserves further study. His engagement with Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats often masks or is mediated by allusions to and borrowings from less illustrious contemporaries: Henry Ellison’s The Poetry of Real Life, Richard Henry Stoddard’s ‘The Witch’s Whelp’, and the ‘fireside’ poems of some of his American contemporaries, especially Longfellow (though Longfellow can hardly be described as a minor figure, at least in terms of popular appeal). In this respect, the figure of Kirke White forms part of a cluster with Chatterton and Keats, his minor chords adding a poignant undertone to the repeated stories of sublimely unfulfilled artistic lives in Browning’s work.


[1] Letter to Elizabeth Barrett, 26 Feb. 1845; Phillip Kelley et al. eds., The Brownings’ Correspondence (Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 1984–), X, 97-101.

[2] Robert Southey ed., The Remains of Henry Kirke White (London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe et al., 1807), II, 136; Sarianna’s copy of the 1808 edition of the Remains is entry A2450 in the Browning Collections (www.browningguide.org).

[3] Southey’s 1803 biography in his and Joseph Cottle’s edition The Works of Thomas Chatterton (1803) was largely responsible for the popular image of the ‘marvellous boy’, and his biographical sketch of Kirke White’s life begins with an allusion to this work.

[4] Donald Smalley ed., Browning’s Essay on Chatterton (1948; rpt. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970), 129.

[5] Southey, Remains, I, 298: the poem is entitled ‘Fragment of an Eccentric Drama’. 

[6] Edward C. McAleer, ed., Learned Lady: Letters from Robert Browning to Mrs. Thomas Fitzgerald (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), 99.

[7] Southey, Remains, I, 36.