< Back

Jews and Robert Browning: fiction and fact

David Goldstein

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jews and Robert Browning: fiction and fact* DAVID GOLDSTEIN I wish to thank you for doing me the honour of conferring on me the Presidency of this Society. It is an accolade for which I feel inadequately prepared, since I am not by training an historian, being moved more by words and pictures than events, and I feel even more unworthy when I contemplate the eminence of my predecessors. Still I shall do my best, and try to represent the interests of the Society as well as I can. One of the advantages of being President, I have assumed, is that I may be permitted to choose the subject of my Presidential lecture. My favourite English poet, after Shakespeare, is Robert Browning, and since this is Montefiore's Bicentenary year (and today is in fact his 200th birthday) I have seized on Browning's links with Sir Moses (about which more anon) to speak to you about the Jews and Robert Browning. Browning's output was enormous. He died at the age of 77, and published poetry to the very end. If we select a few poems to talk about, we must remember that they represent a tiny proportion of his writings and an even smaller part of his interests, wide-ranging geographically, historically and philosophically. The poem of Browning's which most readily springs to mind as a manifestation of his interest in things Jewish is Rabbi Ben Ezra, which begins with the famous lines: Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. It was published in his collection Dramatis Pers?nae in 1864, and was probably written not long before that date, since in its emphasis on freedom of the human will, as well as in its strophic form, it appears to be an answer to Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat, which was published in 1859. Rabbi Ben Ezra is full of biblical allusions, particularly in those lines which derived from the image of God as the Great Potter at the wheel: Ay, note that Potter's wheel, That metaphor! and feel Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay. * For an explanation of the state of the text of this Presidential Paper, presented to the Society on 24 October 1984, readers are requested to turn to the Preface. 125</page><page sequence="2">David Goldstein But who was this Rabbi Ben Ezra? It is most likely that Browning had in mind Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the great twelfth-century Spanish poet and commen? tator who travelled widely and even visited London. Browning with his insatiable appetite for knowledge must surely have heard of him, although it is unlikely that he knew anything of his work first-hand. German translations of Ibn Ezra were already available, and, in the London editions of the Festival Prayer Books, Browning may have read some English renderings of his liturgical poetry. There is one verse in particular in Rabbi Ben Ezra which seems to me to bear some relation to the work of the Jewish poet: ... Praise be Thine! I see the whole design, I, who saw power, see now love perfect too: Perfect I call Thy plan: Thanks that I was a man! Maker, remake, complete?I trust what Thou shalt do! A certain 'Rabbi Ben Ezra' had already appeared in Browning's work, in his collection Men and Women published in 1855. He is a character in the poem Holy-Cross Day. This displays not only Browning's superb dramatic genius but, more relevant to our purpose, his unbounded sympathy for the downtrodden victims of ecclesiastical persecution. It strikes me as being as much anti-clerical as philo-Semitic. He wrote it probably as a result of his visit to Rome in 1853-4. It is headed 'Holy-Cross Day, on which the Jews were forced to attend an annual Christian sermon in Rome'. These conversionist sermons were in fact not annual but much more frequent occurrences. Browning prefaced the poem with a supposed extract from the diary of a Bishop's secretary, dated 1600. Browning wrote this himself: 'Now was come about Holy-Cross Day, and now must my lord preach his first sermon to the Jews... a moving sight in truth, this, of so many of the besotted blind restive and ready-to-perish Hebrews! now maternally brought?nay... haled, as it were, by the head and hair, and against their obstinate hearts, to partake of the heavenly grace...' The poet then adds: 'What the Jews really said, on thus being driven to church, was rather to this effect: Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak! Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week. Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough, Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff, Take the church-road, for the bell's due chime Gives us the summons?'tis sermon-time!' 126</page><page sequence="3">Jews and Robert Browning: fiction and fact (When Browning started 'Fee, faw, fum!' was he thinking of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk who in one version says: 'Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a Christian man'?) Some stanzas in the poem may be based on John Evelyn's account of such a scene in his diary for 7 January 1645. He describes the Jews 'with so much malice in their countenances, spitting, coughing, humming and motion, that it is almost impossible they should hear a word from the preacher.'1 In order to give themselves courage the Jews say under their breath a poem called 'Ben Ezra's Song of Death' which, according to Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra recited to his family 'the night he died'. Again this is a poem wholly invented by Browning. But he must have had an entirely sympathetic understanding of the Jewish outlook to be able to write this version of Isaiah 14:1. The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet, And again in his border see Israel set. When Judah beholds Jerusalem The stranger-seed shall be joined to them. To Jacob's House shall the Gentiles cleave. So the Prophet saith and his sons believe. At the end of the poem Browning had printed this note: 'Pope [Gregory XVI] abolished this bad business of the sermon.?R.B.' A less well-known poem, but one that shows even more plainly Browning's sympathy for the persecuted Jew, is Filippo Baldinucci on the Privilege of Burial. A Reminiscence of A. D. 1676. This poem was composed in 1876, and published in the same year in the collection Pacchiarotto and how he worked in Distemper. The poem is based on a legend related by Baldinucci in his Notizie de' Professori del Disegno (1681-1728), a kind of poor-man's Vasari. The story concerns Lodovico Buti, a Florentine painter who died in the early seventeenth century. The Jews had a cemetery outside Florence, and a farmer who owned the adjoining land commissioned Buti to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary on a wall facing the cemetery in order to annoy the Jews when they came to bury their dead. (Those who wish to see a similar present-day manifestation of this animosity should visit the Jewish quarter in Rome.) An aged rabbi whom Browning, following his original, mistakenly calls a 'High Priest'?and he admitted his mistake in a letter to Furnivall twelve years later?gives the farmer 100 ducats to have Buti erase the painting and repaint it on the other side of the wall, facing the road. The farmer agrees. Buti paints the Virgin Mary on the other side, but when the aged rabbi comes to the cemetery for no less a purpose than to bury his own wife he finds to his horror that now facing the cemetery is a picture of the crucifixion. The farmer has double-crossed the Jew, carrying out only the letter of the agreement, but not the spirit. This is the extent of the story that 127</page><page sequence="4">David Goldstein Baldinucci relates in a virulently anti-Semitic style. Browning retells it but adds a curious sequel. The rabbi's son goes to Buti's workshop and offers to buy the original oil painting of the Virgin Mary on which the fresco near the cemetery was based. Buti sells it to him, and the farmer is overjoyed, convinced that the picture at the cemetery has worked a miraculous conversion on the Jew. He confronts the rabbi's son and asks him why he wants the picture. Here we come to a twist in the whole story, of which perhaps only Browning with his agile mind, which leapt so quickly from one subject to another, was capable. The Jew has become a convert not to Christianity but to the appreciation of fine art. .. .1, at once, Acknowledged error in our tribe So squeamish that, when friends ensconce A pretty picture in its niche To do us honour, deck our graves, We fret and fume, and have an itch To strangle folk... Browning had obviously noted this shortcoming in the traditional Jewish attitude to the fine arts. But he has not yet finished. The Jew goes on to compare the painting of the Virgin Mary with the representations of the gods of the Classical pantheon which hang in such profusion, he says, in the palaces of Cardinals. The revenge of the Jew is to de-Christianize the painting and rob it of its religious meaning: Your picture shall possess ungrudged A place among my rank and file Of Ledas and what not?be judged Just as a picture! Again, here, as in Holy-Cross Day Browning clearly sympathizes with the suffering Jews, as he does in the words he puts into the mouth of the aged rabbi complaining about the fresco of the Virgin looking over the Jews' cemetery: ... How Hebrews toil Through life in Florence?why relate To those who lay the burden, spoil Our paths of peace? We bear our fate. But when with life the long toil ends, Why must you?the expression craves Pardon, but truth compels me, friends!? Why must you plague us in our graves? 128</page><page sequence="5">Jews and Robert Browning: fiction and fact By the by, Browning's affection for art and Jews is expressed in a letter he wrote to Isa Blagden in 1870. In this correspondence he mentions several times the Solomon brothers, and was particularly appreciative of the work of Simeon Solomon. 'I naturally like artists', he writes, 'also Jews: so that both artist and Jew is irresistible.'2 There is something of a mystery attached to In a Gondola, a poem in which Browning depicts a Jew having a secret assignation with a Christian married woman. It is one of his finest poems, full of lyric charm coupled with a sense of impending doom. It is of course set in Venice, which Browning had visited in 1838, and was inspired by a painting called 'The Serenade' by Maclise, which was exhibited in 1842. The mystery is in the stanza which begins: What are we two? I am a Jew, And carry thee, further than friends can pursue, To a feast of our tribe. These lines are well known, but they are immediately followed by: Where they need thee to bribe The devil that blasts them unless he imbibe Thy... Scatter the vision for ever! What on earth was Browning referring to? Is it an allusion to some kind of blood-libel? Is the Jew suggesting that 'his tribe' needs the woman to appease the devil by sacrifice? Is she to be a scapegoat? The poet leaves the sentence unfinished and the reader mystified. And what is more mysterious is that the problem is completely ignored by the critics and commentators. I cannot claim to have read them all, but I have not encountered a single attempt to solve the riddle. The longest poem of Browning's that has distinctly Jewish overtones is Jochanan Hakkadosh, published in the collection Jocoseria in 1883. Its original title was going to be Hagadosch Jochanan, the clear intention being to find a Hebrew equivalent for 'St John'. It was Joseph Jacobs who advised him to select better Hebrew and to entitle it Jochanan Hakkadosh. The central character seems to be a composite of Judah ha-Nasi and Jochanan ben Zakkai. It is based on the legend, common in rabbinic writings, that one can add years to a person's life by sacrificing some years of one's own. Jochanan is dying, but his life is extended by four individuals who each give him a three-month extension. After each period of three months is over he is questioned about the extra wisdom which he must surely have acquired. Jochanan's replies are all negative, until at the end he exclaims his new 129</page><page sequence="6">David Goldstein conception of the spirit, and the triumph of hope: 'Follow thy Ruach, let earth, all it can, keep of the leavings!' The poem is full of Talmudic material?references to the Ten Martyrs, Rabbi Akiba's martyrdom, the remarkably patient teaching of 'Rabbi Perida'; and at the end Browning adds three sonnets, two of which concern the miraculous story of Moses and of Og, King of Bashan, to which the poet appends the phrase in Hebrew 'From Moses to Moses none has arisen like Moses'. Lastly I would refer to Ben Karshook's Wisdom, a poem first printed in an annual entitled The Keepsake in 1856, but never reprinted by Browning himself. He seems to have forgotten it. 'Would a man 'scape the rod?' Rabbi Ben Karshook saith, 'See that he turn to God The day before his death'. The poem was clearly inspired by the well-known statement of Rabbi Eliezer in Avot (1:15): 'Repent one day before you die'. Let us now turn from fiction to fact, from the poet to the man. Perhaps Browning's most important encounter with a Jew was with the object of the current centenary celebrations, Sir Moses Montefiore. This meeting as far as we know was epistolary rather than personal, although a personal meeting cannot of course be ruled out. We turn for our source to that extraordinarily intellectual, sophisticated, academic, highly allusive, and often obscure corres? pondence which goes by the name of the 'Browning Love-Letters'. On 19 February 1846, Robert writes to Elizabeth Barrett: 'When I got home last evening I found... a note headed "Strictly private and confidential"?so here it goes from my mouth to my heart [i.e. from Browning to Elizabeth]? pleasantly proposing that I should "start in a few days" for St Petersburg, as secretary to somebody going there on a "mission of humanity"?grazie tanteV3 This is of course none other than Montefiore's 1846 journey to St Petersburg. Elizabeth replies that same evening: 'It would not do you good to go... your "mission of humanity" lies nearer [meaning, of course, with her]?"strictly private and confidential".'4 The following day Robert writes to Elizabeth 'about the "mission": if it had not been a thing to jest at, I should not have begun, as I did?as you felt I did. I know now, what I only suspected then, and will tell you all the matter on Monday if you care to hear?the "humanity" however, would have been unquestionable if I had chosen to exercise it towards the poor weak incapable creature that wants somebody, and urgently I can well believe?'5 This appears to be a very dismissive reference to the mission and it would seem that conditions were laid down that Browning could not possibly accept. However, he must have considered the invitation a little while longer, because 130</page><page sequence="7">Jews and Robert Browning: fiction and fact we find Elizabeth, whose pet name was 'Ba', writing to Robert three days later (and they often wrote more than once a day): 'Dearest, do not go to St Petersburgh. Do not think [my italics] of going, for fear it should come true &amp; you should go: &amp; while you were helping the Jews and teaching Nicholas [i.e. Tsar Nicholas] what (in that case) would become of Your Ba?'6 Browning had only about ten days to consider the offer. On i March he writes to Elizabeth: 'Sir Moses set off this morning, I hear?somebody yesterday called the telescope an "optical delusion", anticipating more of the kind! So much for this "wandering Jew".'7 The telescope must have caused a stir at the time. In Elizabeth's letter from which I quoted earlier she writes 'St Theresa... saw a clearer glory... than your Sir Moses Montefiore through his hundred-guinea telescope'.8 I do not know whether this telescope still exists. Sir Moses was a member of the Royal Society and a hundred guineas was not more than one would normally pay for a seven-foot 'Newtonian telescope'.9 One must ask what it was that prompted Montefiore to invite Browning to act as secretary on his journey to St Petersburg. It could not possibly have been his gifts as a poet, because by 1846 he had not achieved renown, and in any event, a poet is not the first type of person that Montefiore would naturally look for. The answer is that Browning had already visited St Petersburg as a young man of twenty-two in 1834, although the experience seems to have had little effect on his work?except his poem Ivan Ivanovich. Furthermore, he had gone in connection with negotiations for a large Rothschild loan. Two of Browning's uncles on his father's side worked for Rothschild's in London, and it was William who invited his nephew to accompany him to the Russian capital. We also know that in his twenties Browning was seriously considering a diplomatic career, and had applied unsuccessfully for a post in Persia.10 We may conjecture therefore that his uncles had put in a good word for him with Sir Moses, who responded by offering him the position of secretary. In other words, Sir Moses was trying to do Browning a favour by providing him with this opportunity. This may explain the conditions which Montefiore felt justified in imposing, and to which Browning refers so disparagingly, albeit cryptically, in his letter to Elizabeth. Browning, as we have seen, refused the invitation. But he remained interested in the plight of Russian Jewry and was committed to their relief. His commitment was almost certainly linked to his friendship with Joseph Jacobs, whom we have already mentioned. Jacobs was foremost in arousing public opinion in the 1880s against the atrocities committed by the Russians on the Jews. Browning himself participated in the public protests in 1882. Browning attended the meeting at the Mansion House on 1 February. He himself writes T hardly needed... to be induced to attend the meeting yesterday, little help as my presence could possibly render. No words can sufficiently 131</page><page sequence="8">David Goldstein express my abomination of every species of religious intolerance, and execration of such an instance of it as the late outrages in Russia astonish us with'.11 The chairman of the Mansion House Fund was Sir Julian Goldsmid, whose home at Somerhill was several times visited by Browning. He also by the way visited the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition of 1887, organized by Jacobs with Lucien Wolf, and served indeed on the committee. He made a note of the fact in his account book.12 His Jewish friends included Emma Lazarus, who had a deep effect on him and must have added to his already profound concern for the oppressed. He was frequently asked why he had never visited Jerusalem, and he replied consistently that he could not have made the journey without his wife. We have already seen in Jochanan Hakkadosh that Browning had some knowledge of Hebrew, although it seems to have become a bit rusty as he aged. We have other intimations of his first-hand acquaintance with the language. In the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, is a copy of the Biblia Hebraica, printed by Plantin in four volumes in Antwerp in 1566, that belonged to the philosopher Berkeley and afterwards to Browning. The inscription on the fly-leaf reads 'My wife's book and mine, Robert Browning, April 17, '83.' This copy has a few notes in Browning's hand on the Hebrew text, particularly on Psalms. A number of other Hebrew books, mostly Bibles and grammars, are listed in the sales catalogues of his library. His was more than a rudimentary knowledge. He had what we might call an aesthetic feel for the language. Alfred Domett in his Diary13 recalls how Browning, when he was beginning to study Genesis, remarked on 'the fine effect... of "God said, let there be light?and there was light" how the two parts of the verb in Hebrew [yehi or va-yehi or], each a single word, sounded?the last like the immediate echo and repercussion as it were, of the first, like two claps of the hand, one quick upon the other'.14 Browning was shown a letter that Walter Savage Landor had written to John Forster in 1836, praising Browning's work, and the poet, obviously pleased, wrote on the back of it in Hebrew a quotation from Proverbs 15:30 'a good report maketh the bones fat'.15 A line and a half of Hebrew in Hebrew type actually occur in a poem which has otherwise no Jewish connection: The Melon-Seller. The Hebrew is a quotation from Job 2:10. Shall we receive good at the hand of God And evil not receive? He had trouble, however, with the Hebrew typesetting and it was not until the 132</page><page sequence="9">Jews and'Robert Browning: fiction and fact third edition of the collection Ferishtah's Fancies (ist ed. 1884) that it came out right. It is remarkable that Browning did not consider it necessary to add a transliteration of the Hebrew in the early editions, or in the two-volume collected edition of 1898, although the poet had added his own trans? literation?absolutely accurate?to Mrs Sutherland Orr's copy of Ferishtah's Fancies. He knew his English Bible very well indeed, as can be seen throughout his poetic output. Consider his wonderful poem Saul. The Ring and the Book, which must surely be the greatest unread poem in the English language, contains over 500 biblical allusions. It is this perhaps which earned Browning the reputation of being a great religious, indeed a great Christian, teacher, and which led admirers to compare him with the Hebrew prophets. Conversely, it is probably this reputation which has led to the decline in his popular esteem in our own time. His biblical knowledge may be seen in the title of a series of poems that began to appear in 1841?Bells and Pomegranates. The phrase is taken from Exodus (28:33), describing the robe of the High Priest, which had sewn on to its hem alternately bells and pomegranates. Critics did not know at the series' first appearance the meaning of the title, so Browning had later to explain that it signified 'an alternation, or mixture, of music with discoursing, sound with sense, poetry with thought... such', he adds, 'is actually one of the most familiar of many Rabbinical (and Patristic) acceptations of the phrase.'16 Browning's interest in Hebrew he probably derived from his father, who owned a Hebrew grammar and Bible. Browning was proficient enough in it to make observations on the original text. He was then urged to revise his knowledge of the language by Elizabeth Barrett who, needless to say, knew Hebrew well, although she was not as fluent in the language as she was in Latin and Greek. In the preface to her poems published in 1844 she talks of the twilight in Eden. She writes 'I cannot... believe in an Eden without the longest of purple twilights. The evening [erev] of Genesis signifies a "mingling" and approaches the meaning of our "twilight" analytically.' The superscription to her poem The Measure quotes Isaiah 40:12 and Psalm 80:6, giving the Hebrew shalish ('measure') in Hebrew characters, and she appends a note T believe that the word occurs in no other part of the Hebrew Scriptures'. Elizabeth was not averse to writing for Christian missionary magazines. She writes to Hugh Stuart Boyd in 1827 (she was then twenty-one): T take the liberty of enclosing to you a number of The Jewish Expositor, in which there are some lines of mine... signed with my initials'.17 This poem was entitled 'Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by'. The full name of the journal was The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel (January 1827). It was Browning's knowledge of Hebrew and his positive appreciation of Jews and Judaism in his work, as well as his physical appearance, that led some to 133</page><page sequence="10">David Goldstein hazard the opinion that he had Jewish forbears. There is no foundation for such a view. C.H. Herford, one of Browning's better biographers, writes in 1905: 'A... suggestion that [he] had Jewish blood... can only be described as an impertinence-not to Browning but to the Jewish race. As if to feel the spiritual genius of Hebraism and to be moved by the pathos of Hebraic fate were an eccentricity only to be accounted for by the bias of kin!'"8 Browning did not need to be Jewish to evince a sympathy with the Jewish people, because what he saw in them, in their history and in their religion, was a manifestation of humanity and humaneness. Indeed, this was one of his greatest qualities as a poet. He penetrated beneath the outward trappings to the person beneath. He was not as pious and believing a Christian as Elizabeth, but, more than she, he understood the conflicts between faith and reason, between ecclesiastical position and individual ambition. He was an iconoclast in the best sense, having no time for pretence, fagade, outward ostentation, or self-idolatry. He was attracted to his Jewish characters for the same reason that he was attracted to his Orientals, Italians, Spaniards, or medieval alchemists. They all had something adventurous, strange, romantic and profound to offer. And the profundity lay always in the humanity. And this is the connecting link between his poetic achievement and his actual life, between the fiction and the fact. His compassion for the poor and the persecuted, his hatred of tyrannical oppression, whether political or religious, is displayed both in Holy-Cross Day and in his support for the victims of the Russian pogroms. I do not think one can with reason expect more of such an eminent Victorian as Robert Browning. To call him a philo-Semite is to go too far. He was a lover of humanity. His contribution was to perceive, and to defend his perception, that Jews were human too. NOTES i J. Pettigrew (ed.) The Poems of Robert Browning I (Harmondsworth 1981) 1138. 2 E.C. McAleer, Dearest Isa (Austin, Texas and Edinburgh 1951) 313. 3 E. Kintner (ed.) The Letters of Robert Browning I (Cambridge, Mass. 1969) 473. 4 Ibid. 478. 5 Ibid. 485. 6 Ibid. 490. 7 Ibid. 506-7. 8 Ibid. 487. 9 Ibid. 490, note 3. 1o J. Maynard, Browning's Youth (Cam bridge, Mass. 1977) 128. i i J. Berlin-Lieberman, Robert Browning and Hebraism (Jerusalem 1934) 18. 12 R.A. King, Robert Browning's Finances from his own Account-book (Waco, Texas 1947) 42-3. 13 Alfred Domett, Diary (London 1953) 249. 14 Maynard (see n. io) 313. 15 Ibid. 16 Pettigrew (see n. i) io69. 17 Barbra P. McCarthy (ed.) Elizabeth Bar rett to Mr Boyd (London 1955) 5. 18 C.H. Herford, Robert Browning (Edin burgh and London 190 5) 4. 134</page></plain_text>