Bryan Waller Procter

Bryan Waller Procter (1787–1874)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 322–323.

This long-time Browning friend and correspondent was one of the numerous lawyer-poets of nineteenth-century England. (Another was Thomas Noon Talfourd, q.v.) Born at Leeds on 21 November 1787, Procter attended Harrow as a contemporary of Lord Byron and of Robert Peel. He followed the legal profession in London for most of his life—as a solicitor, conveyancer, and eventually barrister. From 1832 to 1861 he served as a metropolitan commissioner of lunacy. His chief claim to fame, though, was as a writer, under the pseudonym “Barry Cornwall.” The home of Procter and his wife, the former Anne Skepper (1799–1888), was a gathering place for many English literary figures, including RB. Procter contributed verse to The Literary Gazette as early as 1815, but his principal works began with Dramatic Scenes, and Other Poems (1819). Then came such items as A Sicilian Story (1820); the tragedy Mirandola (1821), performed at Covent Garden; The Flood of Thessaly (1823); and English Songs (1832). He provided memoirs of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare for editions of their works, and finally produced Charles Lamb: a Memoir (1866). Along with Thomas Noon Talfourd and John Forster, Procter helped RB to prepare his Poems (1849) for publication. Selections from Robert Browning (1863) was edited by Procter and Forster. RB, about 25 years younger than Procter, entered the latter’s circle of friends in the 1830’s. Note Procter’s letter to RB dated 5 March 1837 (no. 559), which thanks the younger man for a copy of Paracelsus and invites him to call. In 1844, RB dedicated Colombe’s Birthday to “Barry Cornwall.” EBB, meanwhile, had taken interest in Procter’s literary work, a poem of his being mentioned favourably in one of her earliest letters to Mary Russell Mitford (q.v.)—no. 530, written on 9 July 1836. “Cornwall” contributions appeared in the 1838 and 1840 editions of Findens’ Tableaux, the annual edited by Miss Mitford. On at least one occasion—as reported in a letter of 12 April 1846 to RB—EBB’s feelings toward the Procters became ruffled, when she learned through John Kenyon (q.v.) of a critical remark by Mrs. Procter about RB’s not working at a regular occupation. EBB, who had a low opinion of law practice anyway, had replied to Kenyon, in effect, that Procter himself “would have done better things” by looking “simply to his art as an end,” as RB was doing. No lasting damage ensued, however; RB and EBB received best wishes from the Procters after their marriage, and there were repeated contacts during the Brownings’ visits to London in the 1850’s. When EBB’s Aurora Leigh (1857) appeared, Procter said to James T. Fields that it was “by far (a hundred times over) the finest poem ever written by a woman.” When RB returned to live in London after EBB’s death in 1861, he kept to himself for a number of months, seeing very few people except the Procters. Contacts and correspondence between RB and Procter lasted until about the time of the latter’s death on 5 October 1874. After that, RB continued to visit Mrs. Procter and correspond with her. The Procters’ daughter Adelaide Anne (1825–64) was a poet in her own right. In contributing items to the periodical Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens, she adopted the pseudonym “Mary Berwick” so that Dickens, in judging her work, would not be influenced by his friendship with her parents. She took much interest in social issues, and much of her work was of a spiritual or religious nature: a lasting contribution by Miss Procter is her poem “The Lost Chord,” with musical setting by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

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