I have been in the meadows all the day,
And gathered there the nosegay that you see;
Singing within myself as bird or bee
When such do fieldwork on a morn of May.
Writers of biography usually begin their preachments with the rather startling statement, “The subject of this memoir was born”—-Here follows a date, the name of the place and a cheerful little Mrs. Gamp anecdote: this as preliminary to “launching forth.”
It was the merry Andrew Lang, I believe, who filed a general protest against these machine-made biographies, pleading that it was perfectly safe to assume the man was born; and as for the time and place it mattered little. But the merry man was wrong, for Time and Place are often masters of Fate.
For myself, I rather like the good old-fashioned way of beginning at the beginning. But I will not tell where and when Elizabeth was born, for I do not know. And I am quite sure that her husband did not know. The encyclopedias waver between London and Herefordshire, just according as the writers felt in their hearts that genius should be produced in town or country. One man, with opinions pretty well ossified on this subject, having been challenged for his statement that Mrs. Browning was born at Hope End, rushed into print in a letter to the “Gazette” with the countercheck quarrelsome to the effect, “You might as well expect throstles to build nests on Fleet Street ‘buses, as for folks of genius to be born in a big city.” As apology for the man’s ardor I will explain that he was a believer in the Religion of the East and held that spirits choose their own time and place for materialization.
Mrs. Ritchie, authorized by Mr. Browning, declared Burn Hill, Durham, the place, and March Sixth, Eighteen Hundred Nine, the time. In reply, John H. Ingram brings forth a copy of the Tyne “Mercury,” for March Fourteenth, Eighteen Hundred Nine, and points to this:
“In London, the wife of Edward M. Barrett, of a daughter.”
Mr. Browning then comes forward with a fact that derricks can not budge, that is, “Newspapers have ever had small regard for truth.” Then he adds, “My wife was born March Sixth, Eighteen Hundred Six, at Carlton Hall, Durham, the residence of her father’s brother.” One might ha’ thought that this would be the end on’t, but it wasn’t, for Mr. Ingram came out with this sharp rejoinder: “Carlton Hall was not in Durham, but in Yorkshire. And I am authoritatively informed that it did not become the residence of S. Moulton Barrett until some time after Eighteen Hundred Ten. Mr. Browning’s latest suggestions in this matter can not be accepted. In Eighteen Hundred Six, Edward Barrett, not yet twenty years of age, is scarcely likely to have already been the father of the two children assigned to him.” And there the matter rests. Having told this much I shall proceed to launch forth.
The earlier years of Elizabeth Barrett’s life were spent at Hope End, near Ledbury, Herefordshire. I visited the place and thereby added not only one day, but several to my life, for Ali counts not the days spent in the chase. There is a description of Hope End written by an eminent clergyman, to whom I was at once attracted by his literary style. This gentleman’s diction contains so much clearness, force and elegance that I can not resist quoting him verbatim: “The residentiary buildings lie on the ascent of the contiguous eminences, whose projecting parts and bending declivities, modeled by Nature, display astonishing harmoniousness. It contains an elegant profusion of wood, disposed in the most careless yet pleasing order; much of the park and its scenery is in view of the residence, from which vantage-point it presents a most agreeable appearance to the enraptured beholder.” So there you have it!