Robert Browning

Ogni cencio vuol entrare in bucato.—Italian Proverb.

Mr. Buxton Forman received the following self-explanatory letter from Browning:

“19 WARWICK CRESCENT. W., July 27, ‘76.

“DEAR MR. BUXTON FORMAN: There can be no objection to such a simple statement as you have inserted, if it seems worth inserting. ‘Fact,’ it is. Next: ‘aia’ is generally an accumulative yet depreciative termination: ‘Cenciaja’—a bundle of rags—a trifle The proverb means ‘every poor creature will be pressing into the company of his betters,’ and I used it to deprecate the notion that I intended anything of the kind. Is it any contribution to ‘all connected with Shelley,’ if I mention that my ‘Book’ (The Ring and the Book) [rather the ‘old square yellow book’ from which the details were taken] has a reference to the reason given by Farinacci, the advocate of the Cenci, of his failure in the defence of Beatrice? ‘Fuisse punitam Beatricem (he declares) poem ultimi supplicii, non quia ex intervallo occidi mandavit insidiantem suo honori, sed quia ejus exceptionem non probavi tibi. Prout, et idem firmiter sperabatur de sorore Beatrice si propositam excusationem probasset, grout non probavit.’ That is, she expected to avow the main outrage, and did not: in conformity with her words, ‘That which I ought to confess, that will I confess; that to which I ought to assent, to that I assent; and that which I ought to deny, that will I deny.’ Here is another Cenciaja!

“Yours very sincerely,                                        
“ROBERT BROWNING”                

MAY I print, Shelley, how it came to pass
That when your Beatrice seemed—by lapse
Of many a long month since her sentence fell—
Assured of pardon for the parricide—
By intercession of stanch friends, or, say,
By certain pricks of conscience in the Pope
Conniver at Francesco Cenci’s guilt,—
Suddenly all things changed and Clement grew
“Stern,” as you state, “nor to be moved nor bent,
But said these three words coldly ‘She must die;
Subjoining ‘Pardon? Paolo Santa Croce
Murdered his mother also yestereve,
And he is fled: she shall not flee at least!
—So, to the letter, sentence was fulfilled?
Shelley, may I condense verbosity
That lies before me, into some few words
Of English, and illustrate your superb
Achievement by a rescued anecdote,
No great things, only new and true beside?
As if some mere familiar of a house
Should venture to accost the group at gaze
Before its Titian, famed the wide world through,
And supplement such pictured masterpiece
By whisper, “Searching in the archives here,
I found the reason of the Lady’s fate,
And how by accident it came to pass
She wears the halo and displays the palm:
Who, haply, else had never suffered—no,
Nor graced our gallery, by consequence.”
Who loved the work would like the little news:
Who lauds your poem lends an ear to me
Relating how the penalty was paid
By one Marchese dell’ Oriolo, called
Onofrio Santa Croce otherwise,
For his complicity in matricide
With Palo his own brother,—he whose crime
And flight induced “those three words—She must die.”
Thus I unroll you then the manuscript.

    “God’s justice”—(of the multiplicity
Of such communications extant still,
Recording, each, injustice done by God
In person of his Vicar-upon-earth,
Scarce one but leads off to the selfsame tune)—
“God’s justice, tardy though it prove perchance,
Rests never on the track until it reach
Delinquency. In proof I cite the case
Of Paolo Santa Croce.”

                                        Many times
The youngster,—having been importunate
That Marchesine Costanza, who remained
His widowed mother, should supplant the heir
Her elder son, and substitute himself
In sole possession of her faculty,—
And meeting just as often with rebuff,—
Blinded by so exorbitant a lust
Of gold, the youngster straightway tasked his wits,
Casting about to kill the lady—thus.

    He first, to cover his iniquity
Writes to Onofrio Santa Croce, then
Authoritative lord, acquainting him
Their mother was contamination—wrought
Like hell-fire in the beauty of their House
By dissoluteness and abandonment
Of soul and body to impure delight.

Moreover, since she suffered from disease,
Those symptoms which her death made manifest
Hydroptic, he affirmed were fruits of sin
About to bring confusion and disgrace
Upon the ancient lineage and high fame
O’ the family, when published. Duty bound.
He asked his brother—what a son should do?

    Which when Marchese dell’ Oriolo heard
By letter, being absent at his land
Oriolo, he made answer, this, no more:
“It must behoove a son,—things haply so,—
To act as honor prompts a cavalier
And son, perform his duty to all three,
Mother and brothers”—here advice broke off.

    By which advice informed and fortified
As he professed himself—since bound by birth
To bear God’s voice in primogeniture—
Paolo, who kept his mother company
In her domain Subiaco, straightway dared
His whole enormity of enterprise,
And, falling on her, stabbed the lady dead;
Whose death demonstrated her innocence,
And happened,—by the way,—since Jesus Christ
Died to save man, just sixteen hundred years.
Costanza was of aspect beautiful
Exceedingly, and seemed, although in age
Sixty about, to far surpass her peers
The coëtaneous dames, in youth and grace.

    Done the misdeed, its author takes to flight,
Foiling thereby the justice of the world:
Not God’s however,—God, be sure, knows well
The way to clutch a culprit. Witness here!
The present sinner, when he least expects,
Snug-cornered somewhere i’ the Basilicate,
Stumbles upon his death by violence.
A man of blood assaults a man of blood
And slays him somehow. This was afterward:
Enough, he promptly met with his deserts,
And, ending thus, permits we end with him,
And push forthwith to this important point—
His matricide fell out, of all the days,
Precisely when the law-procedure closed
Respecting Count Francesco Cenci’s death
Chargeable on his daughter, sons and wife.
“Thus patricide was matched with matricide,”
A poet not inelegantly rhymed:
Nay, fratricide—those Princes Massimi!—
Which so disturbed the spirit of the Pope
That all the likelihood Rome entertained
Of Beatrice’s pardon vanished straight,
And she endured the piteous death.

                                                     Now see
The sequel—what effect commandment had
For strict inquiry into this last case,
When Cardinal Aldobrandini (great
His efficacy—nephew to the Pope!)
Was bidden crush—ay, though his very hand
Got soil i’ the act—crime spawning everywhere!
Because, when all endeavor had been used
To catch the aforesaid Paolo, all in vain—
“Make perquisition,” quoth our Eminence,
“Throughout his now deserted domicile!
Ransack the palace, roof and floor, to find
If haply any scrap of writing, hid
In nook or corner, may convict—who knows?—
Brother Onofrio of intelligence
With brother Paolo, as in brotherhood
Is but too likely: crime spawns everywhere.”

    And, every cranny searched accordingly,
There comes to light—O lynx-eyed Cardinal!—
Onofrio’s unconsidered writing-scrap,
The letter in reply to Paolo’s prayer,
The word of counsel that—things proving so,
Paolo should act the proper knightly part,
And do as was incumbent on a son,
A brother—and a man of birth, be sure!

Whereat immediately the officers
Proceeded to arrest Onofrio—found
At football, child’s play, unaware of harm,
Safe with his friends, the Orsini, at their seat
Monte Giordano; as he left the house
He came upon the watch in wait for him
Set by the Barigel,—was caught and caged.

    News of which capture being, that same hour,
Conveyed to Rome, forthwith our Eminence
Commands Taverna. Governor and Judge,
To have the process in especial care,
Be, first to last, not only president
In person, but inquisitor as well
Nor trust the by-work to a substitute:
Bids him not, squeamish, keep the bench, but scrub
The floor of justice, so to speak,—go try
His best in prison with the criminal:
Promising, as reward for by-work done
Fairly on all-fours, that, success obtained
And crime avowed, or such connivency
With crime as should procure a decent death—
Himself will humbly beg—which means, procure—
The Hat and Purple from his relative
The Pope, and so repay a diligence
Which, meritorious in the Cenci-case,
Mounts plainly here to Purple and the Hat.
Whereupon did my lord the Governor
So masterfully exercise the task
Enjoined him, that he, day by day, and week
By week, and month by month, from first to last
Toiled for the prize: now, punctual at his place,
Played judge, and now, assiduous at his post,
Inquisitor—pressed cushion and scoured plank,
Early and late. Noon’s fervor and night’s chill,
Naught moved whom morn would, purpling, make amends!
So that observers laughed as, many a day,
He left home, in July when day is flame,
Posted to Tordinona-prison, plunged
Into a vault where daylong night is ice,
There passed his eight hours on a stretch, content,
Examining Onofrio: all the stress
Of all examination steadily
Converging into one pin-point,—he pushed
Tentative now of head and now of heart.
As when the nut-hatch taps and tries the nut
This side and that side till the kernel sound,—
So did he press the sole and single point
—What was the very meaning of the phrase
“Do as beseems an honored cavalier”?

    Which one persistent question-torture,—plied
Day by day, week by week, and month by month,
Morn, noon and night,—fatigued away a mind
Grown imbecile by darkness, solitude,
And one vivacious memory gnawing there
As when a corpse is coffined with a snake:
—Fatigued Onofrio into what might seem
Admission that perchance his judgment groped
So blindly, feeling for an issue—aught
With semblance of an issue from the toils
Cast of a sudden round feet late so free,
He possibly might have envisaged, scarce
Recoiled from—even were the issue death
—Even her death whose life was death and worse!
Always provided that the charge of crime,
Each jot and tittle of the charge were true.
In such a sense, belike, he might advise
His brother to expurgate crime with . . . well,
With blood, if blood must follow on “the course
Taken as might beseem a cavalier.”

    Whereupon process ended, and report
Was made without a minute of delay
To Clement, who, because of those two crimes
O’ the Massimi and Cenci flagrant late,
Must needs impatiently desire result.

    Result obtained, he bade the Governor
Summon the Congregation and despatch.
Summons made, sentence passed accordingly
—Death by beheading. When his death-decree
Was intimated to Onofrio, all
Man could do—that did he to save himself.
’Twas much, the having gained for his defence
The Advocate o’ the Poor, with natural help
Of many noble friendly persons fain
To disengage a man of family,
So young too, from his grim entanglement:
But Cardinal Aldobrandini ruled
There must be no diversion of the law.
Justice is justice, and the magistrate
Bears not the sword in vain. Who sins must die.

    So, the Marchese had his head cut off,
With Rome to see, a concourse infinite,
In Place Saint Angelo beside the Bridge:
Where, demonstrating magnanimity
Adequate to his birth and breed,—poor boy!—
He made the people the accustomed speech.
Exhorted them to true faith, honest works,
And special good behavior as regards
A parent of no matter what the sex,
Bidding each son take warning from himself.
Truly, it was considered in the boy
Stark staring lunacy, no less, to snap
So plain a bait, be hooked and hauled ashore
By such an angler as the Cardinal!
Why make confession of his privity
To Paolo’s enterprise? Mere sealing lips—
Or, better, saying “When I counselled him
To do as might beseem a cavalier,’
What could I mean but ‘Hide our parent’s shame
As Christian ought, by aid of Holy Church!
Bury it in a convent—ay, beneath
Enough dotation to prevent its ghost
From troubling earth!
”’ Mere saying thus,—’tis plain,
Not only were his life the recompense.
But he had manifestly proved himself
True Christian, and in lieu of punishment
Got praise of all men!—so the populace.

    Anyhow, when the Pope made promise good
(That of Aldobrandini, near and dear)
And gave Taverna, who had toiled so much,
A Cardinal’s equipment, some such word
At this from mouth to ear went saucily:
“Taverna’s cap is dyed in what he drew
From Santa Croce’s veins!” So joked the world.

    I add: Onofrio left one child behind,
A daughter named Valeria, dowered with grace
Abundantly of soul and body, doomed
To life the shorter for her father’s fate.
By death of her, the Marquisate returned
To that Orsini House from whence it came:
Oriolo having passed as donative
To Santa Croce from their ancestors.

    And no word more? By all means! Would you know
The authoritative answer, when folk urged
“What made Aldobrandini, hound-like stanch,
Hunt out of life a harmless simpleton?”
The answer was—“Hatred implacable,
By reason they were rivals in their love.”
The Cardinal’s desire was to a dame
Whose favor was Onofrio’s. Pricked with pride,
The simpleton must ostentatiously
Display a ring, the Cardinal’s love-gift,
Given to Onofrio as the lady’s gage;
Which ring on finger, as he put forth hand
To draw a tapestry, the Cardinal
Saw and knew, gift and owner, old and young;
Whereon a fury entered him—the fire
He quenched with what could quench fire only—blood.
Nay, more: “there want not who affirm to boot,
The unwise boy, a certain festal eve,
Feigned ignorance of who the wight might be
That pressed too closely on him with a crowd.
He struck the Cardinal a blow: and then,
To put a face upon the incident,
Dared next day, smug as ever, go pay court
I’ the Cardinal’s antechamber. Mark and mend,
Ye youth, by this example how may greed
Vainglorious operate in worldly souls!”

    So ends the chronicler, beginning with
“God’s justice, tardy though it prove perchance,
Rests never till it reach delinquency.”
Ay, or how otherwise had come to pass
That Victor rules, this present year, in Rome?

Back    |    Words Home    |    Robert Browning Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback