Alfred Domett (1811–87)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 4, 315–317.
The close friendship between RB and Alfred Domett began during their years in the Camberwell area, where both were born, and continued until Domett’s death. Alfred was born a year ahead of RB, on 20 May 1811, son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (née Curling) Domett. Nathaniel had served as a midshipman in the Navy after going to sea at age 12 (Maynard, p. 100 and n. 112) and later had turned to merchant shipping. The son seemingly inherited his spirit of restlessness. Alfred Domett attended school at Stockwell, then spent four years at St. John’s College, Cambridge, without taking a degree. His life in the 1830’s included visits to North America and Italy, and the publication of some poetry: Poems (1833), various pieces for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and Venice (1839). For a while he looked toward law as a career, becoming a barrister of the Middle Temple in 1841. Restlessness prevailed, however, prompting him in 1842 to emigrate to New Zealand, where he remained for the next three decades. He held important positions in the colonial government, including that of Prime Minister in 1862–63. As Commissioner of Crown Lands in the province of Hawke’s Bay he laid out the town of Napier—naming streets after Tennyson, Carlyle, and RB. Domett dealt sympathetically with native Maori culture in his long poem Ranolf and Amohia, a South Sea Day Dream (1872), but as a colonial official he came down on the side of toughness toward the Maoris. He married a widow, Mrs. George; they had a son, Alfred, plus children from her previous marriage. Domett reappeared in England in early 1872 and renewed his association with the Brownings—RB and Sarianna. Upon his return he began keeping a diary, available as The Diary of Alfred Domett: 1872–1885, ed. E.A. Horsman (1953). This journal is important to Browning biographers not only for its accounts of contacts with RB at the time it was written, but also for reminiscences about the poet in earlier times. Domett received a knighthood in 1880, and died on 2 November 1887.
Since RB and Domett grew up in the same London suburban area, biographers’ uncertainty over just when they first met is understandable. There is a copy of Paracelsus (1835) in which Domett wrote: “Alfred Domett from Robt. Browning 1835” (Reconstruction, C428), but this may not mean that the book actually was presented in the year of publication. The earliest known letter between RB and Domett was written by RB on 7 March 1840 (no. 739) saying: “Pray accept the book …”—an inscribed copy of Sordello (Reconstruction, C562). W. Hall Griffin, writing in The Contemporary Review (January 1905, pp. 95–115), said that “no real intimacy seems to have existed until at least 1840.” In any case, Griffin’s biography of RB, which was completed by H.C. Minchin and published in 1910, refers to Domett as an early friend of RB “beyond all other men” (G & M, p. 79). Frequently mentioned is the participation of RB and Domett in a loosely organized club or “set” of suburban men, mostly quite young, that flourished ca. 1835–40 (G & M, p. 80). Among other members were Christopher and Joseph Dowson, Frederick and William Curling Young, Joseph Arnould, and an older man—Captain Pritchard (see letter 497). Getting together frequently for discussions and arguments about history, politics, etc., the members called their meetings—and frequently themselves—“colloquials.” Clearly this group had a significant influence on RB and Domett in their formative years. Domett was among the people to whom RB wrote intimate and somewhat playful letters, such as no. 747, dated 23 March 1840. RB valued Domett’s careful attention to his works and frank criticism of them. He remarked to Joseph Arnould about one Domett critique, for instance: “Now this is what one wants; how few men there are who will give you this” (RB-AD, p.78). RB’s first letter after Domett’s departure for New Zealand, written 22 May 1842, spoke of “my real love for you—better love than I had supposed I was fit for.” He wrote a tribute to Domett in the form of his poem “Waring,” published as part of Dramatic Lyrics (1842). Domett also crops up in RB’s “The Guardian-Angel,” published in Men and Women (1855), and seemingly (DeVane, p. 180) in “Time’s Revenges,” which appeared in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). RB kept up a stream of letters to Domett in New Zealand until 1846, the year of his own marriage to EBB and departure for Italy. Then a lapse occurred, partly because of RB’s changed situation, no doubt, and partly because of the “five-months’ inevitable voyage” between England and New Zealand which he mentioned in his last known letter to Domett for a quarter of a century, dated 13 July 1846. Domett, on 20 August of the same year, thanked RB “for the book,” obviously Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) and said: “Your Lyrics have delighted me.” So far as is known, that was all from either side until 6 May 1864, when Domett wrote of endeavouring “to renew our old familiarity”; reported that hehad been “sticking your poems ‘into the entrails’ of the better sort of folk out here”; and said of RB’s “lost wife”: “How I should have liked to have known her both for your sake & her own!” RB did not reply. Despite this neglect, Domett called at the Browning residence upon his return to England in 1872 and was greeted by Sarianna. RB was not at home, but promptly wrote (on 1 March): “How very happy I am that I shall see you again! I never could bear to answer the letter you wrote to me years ago … it was too hard to begin … But come & let us begin all over again.” Domett came, and contacts were thus resumed. Domett continued his old custom of expressing honest opinions about RB’s poetry. He questioned the wisdom of RB’s attack on poet and critic Alfred Austin in Pacchiarotto (1876), writing to RB on 27 October 1876 that “he was utterly beneath your notice.” Domett’s reaction, in his diary, to RB’s Jocoseria (1883) is described by G & M (p. 273) as “a prolonged growl.” Domett became a vice-president of the London Browning Society when it was established in 1881; but, like most of the other vice-presidents, he played no major role in its activities. His poetical work Flotsam and Jetsam (1877) was dedicated to RB (see Reconstruction, A806). RB sent a copy of his Parleyings (1887) to Domett (Reconstruction, C446), and it clearly was the book cited in the last known letter to pass between these two friends. On 30 January 1887, Domett thanked RB for “your new book of Poems” and went on to say: “I have only as yet run through the Prologue—and you as you know, are not exactly a poet whom one may read as he runs.” Later in 1887, on 12 November, RB wrote to Pen and Fannie Browning: “Poor Domett died last week, to my surprise and sorrow. I was hindered, by the distance and much else, from seeing him of late years … There are notices of him in the Papers, and he proves to have been not other than successful in his life, though notso thoroughly and conspicuously as he might have been.”