Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 3: Bells and Pomegranates I–VI: including Pippa Passes and Dramatic Lyrics

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In the letter to Fanny Haworth written on 1 July 1837 from which we have already quoted on p. 93, Browning told her that he 'had chosen a splendid subject' for the further tragedy which he had had 'in prospect' when he 'learned that a magazine for next, this month, will have a scene founded on my story: vulgarizing or doing no good to it', with the result that he 'thr[e]w it up'. Now, therefore, he was looking for another theme, 'a subject of the most wild and passionate love, to contrast with the one I mean to have ready in a short time'. He continued: 'I have many half-conceptions, floating fancies: give me your notion of a thorough self-devotement, self-forgetting; should it be a woman who loves thus, or a man? What circumstances will best draw out, set forth this feeling? Think for me . . .'1 Kelley and Hudson have identified the original 'splendid subject', the Death of Marlowe, on which R. H. Horne published a Dramatic Scene in the Monthly Repository for August 1837. Mrs Orr no doubt had Browning's own authority for identifying the alternative subject as The Return of the Druses.2 We do not know how early Browning began work on this play, but 'Mansoor the Hierophant' was one of the three dramas advertised as 'Nearly Ready' at the end of Sordello, in March 1840.3 In the letter to Domett written during the same month, in which he denied being 'difficult on system', Browning told him that he was busy on the plays he had advertised, and assured him that they should 'be plain enough if my pains are not thrown away—and, in lieu of Sir Philip and his like, Stokes may assure himself that I see him (first row of the pit, under the second oboe, hat between legs, play-bill on a spike, and a "comforter" round his throat "because of the draught from the stage"), and unless he leaves off sucking his orange at the pg 278Editor’s Notepathetic morsels of my play, I hold them nought'.1 It is clear that Browning was still eager for theatrical success.

In April or May, as it seems, he wrote to Macready: 'What you say puts fresh heart into me—I am sure you will like this last labour of mine, and mean therefore to spend a day or two in making a fair copy of it, the M.S. I should have read being a portentous scribble. Most likely you will receive it on Saturday Night.'2 We do not know exactly what happened next, but in a letter conjecturally dated June 1840 Browning told Macready that he had 'considerably altered and, I hope, improved' the play: 'the three acts are now five, as you advised, and go the better for it—such as they are I will send them as soon as I can'. He delivered the play on 31 July, on which day Macready noted, in the privacy of his Diaries, that it 'does not look well'.3 On 3 August he read it, 'and with the deepest concern I yield to the belief that he will never write again —to any purpose', adding: 'I fear his intellect is not quite clear. I do not know how to write to Browning.' Nine days later Browning called and walked with him to the theatre, talking of The Return of the Druses and of Sordello: 'I most honestly told him my opinion on both, expressing myself most anxious, as I am, that he should justify the expectations formed of him, but that he could not do so by placing himself in opposition to the world.' Macready added: 'He wished me to have his play done for nothing. I explained to him that Mr. Webster would not do it; we talked to the Haymarket, and in parting I promised to read it again.' The result appears from Browning's letter of 9 August:

So once again, dear Macready, I have failed to please you! The Druzes return, in another sense than I had hoped; for though, to confess a truth, I have worked from the beginning somewhat in the spirit of the cucumber-dresser in the old story (the doctor, you remember, bids such an one "slice a plate full—salt it, pepper it, add oil, vinegar  c  c and then .. throw all behind the fire")—spite of this, I did rather fancy that you would have "sympathized" with Djabal in the main scenes of my play; and your failing to do so is the more decisive against it, that I really had you here, in this little room of mine, while I wrote bravely away—here were you, propping the weak, pushing the strong parts (such I thought there might be!)—now majestically motionless, and now "laying about as busily, as the Amazonian dame Penthesilé"—and here, please the fates, shall you again & again give breath and blood to some thin creation of mine yet unevoked—but elsewhere —enfoncé! Your other objections I think less material— pg 279that the auditory, for instance, know nothing of the Druzes and their doings until I tell them (which is the very office I take on myself) that they are men   women oppressed and outraged in such and such ways and desirous of being rid of their oppressor and outrager: if the auditory thus far instructed (and I considered that point sufficiently made out) call for a previous acquaintance with the Druzes before they will go along with such a desire .. are they not worthy compatriots of the Hyde-park gentleman who "could not think of pulling a man out of the Serpentine to whom he had not been previously introduced"?1

Browning argues against Macready's 'misgivings' and maintains that if he were in his place 'it should be my first condition with a playwright that his piece should be new, essentially new for better or for worse . . . If it did not fail .. were it even some poor Return of the Druzes, it would be something yet unseen, in however poor a degree-some thing, therefore, to go and see.' In a postscript Browning told Macready that he did not wish his play to be forwarded to Benjamin Nottingham Webster, the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, and added that he would call for his manuscript 'some morning this week'. Four days later he did call, before the unfortunate Macready had finished his bath, 'and really wearied me with his obstinate faith in his poem of Sordello, and of his eventual celebrity, and also with his self-opinionated persuasions upon his Return of the Druses. I fear he is for ever gone . . . Browning accompanied me to the theatre, at last consenting to leave the MS. with me for a second perusal.'2 On 15 September Macready brought himself to read as much as he could of this 'mystical, strange and heavy play', and concluded: 'It is not good.' 'Wrote to him', he confided in his Diaries, 'and, offering to do all in my power, gave him my reconsidered opinion.' We next hear of the play on 22 May 1842, when Browning told Domett that he was going to 'print the Eastern play' he might remember hearing about.3 In January of the following year The Return of the Druses, which was never acted in Browning's lifetime, was published as the fourth of the Bells and Pomegranates.

Browning's choice of subject-matter was unusual, but hardly unexampled. Byron, who never forgot Mme de Staël's advice to 'Stick to the East', had been fascinated by the pages of the Travels of Edward Daniel Clarke devoted to the Druses: 'I doat upon the Druses,' he told Clarke when he thanked him for a copy of his second volume, 'but who pg 280the deuce are they with their Pantheism? I shall never be easy till I ask them the question.'1 Clarke had described the Druses as

A sect of Arabs inhabiting the environs of Mount Libanus; so called from their founder, surnamed El Durzi, who came from Persia into Egypt in the year 1020 . . . Niebuhr and Volney have given a full account of their history. It has been ignorantly supposed that they are the offspring of a colony of French Crusaders; but their name occurs in the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, written anterior to the Crusades . . . Pococke fell into the error of their Christian origin. 'If any account', says he, 'can be given of the original of the Druses, it is, that they are the remains of the Christian armies in the Holy War.'2

While there is no evidence that Browning knew Clarke's book, we can be certain that he turned to the Biographie universelle3 and to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Griffin and Minchin go so far as to state that the former 'suggested the idea of The Return of the Druses.4 Here is what Browning will have found, in the nineteenth volume:

HAKEM (Biamr-Allah), Abou Aly Mansour, third Fatemite khalif of Egypt, succeeded his father Azyz-billah in . . . 996 [999], at the age of only eleven. This personage is celebrated in history for the uninterrupted succession of cruelties and extravagances which filled his reign. A capricious and ferocious despot, he did not know how to deserve the love of any of his subjects, and made himself detested by all . . . The Christians suffered a great deal under the reign of Hakem . . . The excess of the evils to which they were subjected decided the eastern Christians to implore their western brothers for rescue, and was the first motive which led to the crusades. The Popes likewise, in the arguments which they utilized to bring about the sacred war, did not forget to paint these calamities in terms both eloquent and true. Hakem disappeared [in March 1021], after a reign of twenty-five years and one month. It has been maintained that his sister had occasioned his death; but the most reliable historians state that he was assassinated by a man from Saïd . . . Who would have believed that a monster like Hakem could become the object of a religious cult? Hamza-ben-Aly claimed that this khalif had been raised to heaven, and that he would return one day to reign over the whole earth: he made this dogma the foundation-stone of the sect of the Druses, of which some remains still exist today in Syria.

pg 281Browning is also sure to have read of the Druses in Gibbon, whose account of them could well have suggested that they would form an eligible subject for a play which is, as Mrs Orr described it, 'fictitious in plot, but historical in character'.1 Gibbon's passage on the Fatimite caliphs is to be found in the penultimate paragraph of ch. LVII of The Decline and Fall:

The third of these Fatimite caliphs was the famous Hakem, a frantic youth, who was delivered by his impiety and despotism from the fear either of God or man; and whose reign was a wild mixture of vice and folly . . . At first the caliph declared himself a zealous mussulman, the founder or benefactor of moschs and colleges . . . But his vanity was soon flattered by the hope of introducing a new religion: he aspired above the fame of a prophet, and styled himself the visible image of the most high God, who, after nine apparitions on earth, was at length manifest in his royal person. At the name of Hakem, the lord of the living and the dead, every knee was bent in religious adoration: his mysteries were performed on a mountain near Cairo: sixteen thousand converts had signed his profession of faith; and at the present hour, a free and warlike people, the Druses of mount Libanus, are persuaded of the life and divinity of a madman and tyrant.

Gibbon goes on to write of 'the inconstancy or repentance of Hakem', recording that, after his assassination, 'The succeeding caliphs resumed the maxims of religion and policy', 'a free toleration' again being granted. 'The religion of the Druses', he comments in a characteristic footnote, 'is concealed by their ignorance and hypocrisy. Their secret doctrines are confined to the elect who profess a contemplative life; and the vulgar Druses, the most indifferent of men, occasionally conform to the worship of the Mahometans and Christians of their neighbourhood. The little that is, or deserves to be, known, may be seen in the industrious Niebuhr . . ., and the second volume of the recent and instructive Travels of M. de Volney.'

It is all but certain that Browning consulted Volney's book, Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte,2 in which prominence is given to the myth that the Druses were descended from French Crusaders. Volney describes the visit to the court of the Medici made by Fakr-el-din in the early years of the seventeenth century:

The arrival of an Oriental prince in Italy, did not fail to attract the public attention. Enquiry was made into his nation, and the origin of the Druzes became popular topics [sic] of research. Their history and religion were found to be so pg 282little known as to leave it a matter of doubt whether they should be classed with the Mahometans or Christians. The Crusades were called to mind, and it was soon suggested that a people who had taken refuge in the mountains, and were enemies to the natives, could be no other than the offspring of the Crusaders.

This idle conceit was too favourable to Fakr-el-din for him to endeavour to disprove it: he was artful enough, on the contrary, to pretend he was related to the house of Lorraine; and the missionaries and merchants, who promised themselves a new opening for conversions and commerce, encouraged his pretensions. When an opinion is in vogue, every one discovers new proofs of its certainty. The learned in etymology, struck with the resemblance of the names, insisted, that Druzes and Dreux must be the same word, and, on this foundation, formed the system of a pretended colony of French Crusaders, who, under the conduct of a Comte de Dreux, had formed a settlement in Lebanon.

We do not know whether Browning consulted Cars ten Niebuhr's book (available in French as Voyage en Arabie & en d'autres Pays circonvoisins, Amsterdam and Utrecht, 1780), but it is highly probable that he had looked into Lamartine's Souvenirs, impressions, pensées et paysages, pendant un voyage en Orient (4 vols., Paris 1835), since in the year of its publication we find him telling Amédée de Ripert-Monclar that it was 'making a noise here just now';1 but Lamartine includes no information which was not available to Browning elsewhere.2

No manuscript of The Return of the Druses appears to survive. The play, which Browning reprinted in 1849 and subsequent collected editions, presents hardly any textual difficulties. In 1843 'Loÿs' and 'Maäni' have diaeresis marks, as an aid to pronunciation. These disappear in all later editions: the change is not recorded in our textual notes.

The three emendations in the Dykes Campbell copy have been adopted in this edition.3 At i. 311 an obvious misprint in 1888 and 1889 is corrected.


1 Correspondence, iii. 256–7.

2 Life, p. 97.

3 '"Mansoor" was one of the names of the third Fatemite Caliph, Biamrallah,' Browning explained to Gosse many years later '—but the word "Hierophant" was used inadvertently. I changed the title to "The Return of the Druses," and the name to "Djabal." It is very good of you to care about the circumstance': Letters, p. 187. Browning also told Gosse that King Victor and King Charles and The Return of the Druses were 'concluded before 1840': Personalia, p. 47. Griffin and Minchin state that The Blot in the Scutcheon and The Return of the Druses 'are each said to have been written in five days' (p. 108). The evidence about the former is more persuasive: see p. 357, below.

1 Browning and Domett, pp. 29–30. Sir Philip Sidney is taken as the type of the intelligent spectator, as contrasted with the plebeian Stokes. Cf. Sordello, i. 68 ff.

2 Correspondence, iv. 268–9; New Letters, p. 20.

3 Diaries, ii. 72, 73.

1 Correspondence, iv. 294.

2 Diaries, ii. 76, 80.

3 Browning and Domett, p. 36.

1 Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (12 vols., 1973–82), iii. 101 and ii. 181. By the beginning of the 1840s, in spite of Macready's objection that 'the auditory . . . know nothing of the Druzes and their doings', the troubles in Lebanon and the unhappy condition of the Druses were often mentioned in the English press.

2 Travels in Various Countries of Europe and Africa, Part II, Sect. i (1812), p. 367 n.

3 Cf. pp. 95–7 above. Browning will also have read about the Druses in The Great Historical . . . Dictionary, by Jeremy Collier (cf. pp. 244 n., 261–2). The account in the Dictionary of All Religions, from which he took the epigraph for 'Johannes Agricola', is merely a conflation of the two entries in Collier.

4 Griffin and Minchin, p. 25.

1 Handbook, p. 60.

2 Volney's book was published in two volumes in Paris in 1787. We quote from the English translation, Travels through Syria and Egypt, published in London in two volumes the same year. The above quotation is from ii. 43–4. Volney ascribes to the Druses 'a truly republican spirit'.

1 Correspondence, iii. 144.

2 As DeVane points out, the article in the Biographie universelle refers to the Chrestomathie Arabe of Silvestre de Sacy (Paris 1806). There is nothing in the play, however, which is clearly from de Sacy.

3 These include the grammatically dubious 'pursuant of (i. 131), which Browning preferred to the earlier 'pursuant to'. In the Brigham Young copy of Bells and Pomegranates Browning picked up the misprint 'stay' for 'slay' (ii. 307), which was duly corrected in 1849. There are no changes to The Return of the Druses in the Texas annotated copy of 1843.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
p. 278, l. 22: for would not read would not
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