Baylor Pulls Off A 'coup' at Browning Auction in London

March 24, 1997

by Alan Hunt

WACO, Texas -- Rare manuscripts containing what are believed to be the last poems written by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning have been acquired by the Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University.

Dr. Mairi Rennie, director of Armstrong-Browning, successfully bid on the items at an auction held last week in New Bond Street, London. "It was quite a coup for Baylor," she said. "The bidding was fierce. Several internationally known Browning collectors would have liked these handwritten items. "

She said stories in the British press heightened interest in the auction. One London newspaper headlined its story "Browning's final words on life go up for sale." Another newspaper referred to the poems as the "Long-lost last words of the literary lovers."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55 in 1861, and her husband, Robert Browning, died in 1889 aged 77. "Their union was one of the greatest literary romances ever known," Rennie explained.

She said she was "absolutely elated" with the purchase on Baylor's behalf. She said the Robert Browning manuscript contains a meditation on the transience of life and presence of death. The previously unknown six-line verse was found on a scrap of paper in an envelope inscribed "Found in Robert Browning's blotter after his death - Dec. 1889."

She added, "Up to now, Robert Browning's last poem was believed to have been Epilogue to Asolando, which was published on the day he died. One London expert described this latest discovery as Browning's way of taking 'another last bow.'"

Also included in the material purchased by Baylor is a manuscript of The North and the South, the last poem written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning before her death. The manuscript is signed and dated by her, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Rome. May 1861." Said Rennie, "Her husband's marks for the printer show that he used this manuscript for the publication of the poem after her death. This adds to the interest of the item." The seven-stanza poem was written in honor of the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

The Baylor purchase also includes five autographed letters by Robert Browning - four addressed to Lady Lothian, the other to watercolorist and illustrator Thomas R. Macquoid.

Rennie said the items originally surfaced and were purchased at a Red Cross charity sale during the First World War. "They have been locked away somewhere for decades. The poems were offered for sale at the auction by an anonymous elderly woman who apparently bought them at that sale so long ago."

The Browning items will be arriving at Baylor from England in about two weeks, after completion and processing of the various export and transit requirements, Rennie said.

She said the items were purchased through endowment proceeds from funds provided by members of the Armstrong-Browning Library's Guardian Angel Organization, a group of ardent supporters of the library. "Items like this come on the international market all too rarely. To hold our own with other institutions, we have to move quickly on anything," she said. "We are extremely grateful to the Guardian Angels."

The Armstrong-Browning Library contains more than 2,000 letters, manuscripts, personal items and other materials related to the Brownings. Materials are added to the collection every year. Browning Day, a program of readings and musical settings of the Brownings' poetry, is planned for 3-6 p.m., Thursday, April 10.

For more information, call (817) 755-3566.

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