Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31

And so, January 31, 1846, Miss Barrett agrees to agree in almost as convoluted a way as Browning states the thesis. But again, we get the point. She agrees to do as he wishes if her health continues better to the end of the summer. She wants to make it completely clear that if he changes his mind he is released. She even seems to imply that after the marriage he will still be free,

“Even if you liked to live altogether abroad, coming to England at intervals, it would be no sacrifice for me—and whether in Italy or England, we should have sufficient or more than sufficient means of living, without modifying by a line that 'good free life' of yours which you reasonably praise—which, if it had been necessary to modify, we must have parted, ... because I could not have borne to see you do it; though, that you once offered it for my sake, I never shall forget.”

And Browning returns the favor in his response on the same date, “Meanwhile, silent or speaking, I am yours to dispose of as that glove—not that hand.”

I am interested in this comment as well:

“I must think that Mr. Kenyon sees, and knows, and ... in his goodness ... hardly disapproves—he knows I could not avoid—escape you—for he knows, in a manner, what you are ... like your American; and, early in our intercourse, he asked me (did I tell you?) 'what I thought of his young relative'—and I considered half a second to this effect—'if he asked me what I thought of the Queen-diamond they showed me in the crown of the Czar—and I answered truly—he would not return; "then of course you mean to try and get it to keep."' So I did tell the truth in a very few words. Well, it is no matter."

I don’t think Kenyon knew.  He may have known that they were close, how could he not know that? I am sure that Browning spoke rhapsodies of his poetess to Kenyon. But how could Kenyon possibly know that the relationship was as deep and committed as to be an engagement? It was unfathomable even to Miss Barrett who obviously believed that Browning would come to his senses by the end of the summer. Also, I suspect that Kenyon didn’t want to know. If he knew he would probably have tried to talk them both out of it. Browning had no money and Miss Barrett was throwing security out forever. There would be no going back to her father’s house. The whole thing was pretty tenuous. And if you look out into their future, their finances were really pretty fragile until Kenyon himself bestowed 100 pounds a year on them. It would have been as a (unpleasant) duty to him to talk them out of it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

January 30

January 30, 1843 brought a note to Mrs. Martin, Miss Barrett's neighbor from her childhood home of Hope End. There were some happenings to report at Wimpole Street: They had a new painting by Andrea del Sarto over the mantelpiece and some new books and despite it being the middle of a London winter she had not a a fire in the grate for four days! It looks like they were experiencing global warming in 1843.

The following comments reflect an ongoing affection for things American in our British poetess. I think her republican sentiments along with a strong following for her poems in the erstwhile colonies gave her a soft spot for the Yankees.

"Tell me, have you read Mr. Dickens's 'America;' and what is your thought of it like? If I were an American, it would make me rabid, and certain of the free citizens arefurious, I understand, while others 'speak peace and ensue it,' admire as much of the book as deserves any sort of admiration, and attribute the blameable parts to the prejudices of the party with whom the writer 'fell in,' and not to a want of honesty or brotherhood in his own intentions. I admire Mr. Dickens as an imaginative writer, and I love the Americans—I cannot possibly admire or love this book."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

January 28

So, how did Browning respond to Miss Barrett’s case against her father? I was expecting him to throw a fit of pique, but her calm description of the situation seems to have brought out calm in our hotheaded poet. His letter of January 28, 1846 is short and almost perfectly measured. I say “almost” because he, as ever, wants to add endless digressions. Here it is in full:

Ever dearest—I will say, as you desire, nothing on that subject—but this strictly for myself: you engaged me to consult my own good in the keeping or breaking our engagement; not your good as it might even seem to me; much less seem to another. My only good in this world—that against which all the world goes for nothing—is to spend my life with you, and be yours. You know that when I claim anything, it is really yourself in me—you give me a right and bid me use it, and I, in fact, am most obeying you when I appear most exacting on my own account—so, in that feeling, I dare claim, once for all, and in all possible cases (except that dreadful one of your becoming worse again ... in which case I wait till life ends with both of us), I claim your promise's fulfilment—say, at the summer's end: it cannot be for your good that this state of things should continue. We can go to Italy for a year or two and be happy as day and night are long. For me, I adore you. This is all unnecessary, I feel as I write: but you will think of the main fact as ordained, granted by God, will you not, dearest?—so, not to be put in doubt ever again—then, we can go quietly thinking of after matters. Till to-morrow, and ever after, God bless my heart's own, own Ba. All my soul follows you, love—encircles you—and I live in being yours.

Now wasn’t that nice? He can’t just say it simply, but he somehow gets his thesis out there.

Exactly a year earlier Browning had written only his third letter to Miss Barrett. His letter of January 28, 1845 seems a world away from 1846. His letter reads to me as if he can’t think of anything much to say but tells one of his ubiquitous stories, this time about literary criticism:

Here an odd memory comes—of a friend who,—volunteering such a service to a sonnet-writing somebody, gave him a taste of his quality in a side-column of short criticisms on sonnet the First, and starting off the beginning three lines with, of course, 'bad, worse, worst'—made by a generous mintage of words to meet the sudden run of his epithets, 'worser, worserer, worserest' pay off the second terzet in full—no 'badder, badderer, badderest' fell to the Second's allowance, and 'worser' &c. answered the demands of the Third; 'worster, worsterer, worsterest' supplied the emergency of the Fourth; and, bestowing his last 'worserestest and worstestest' on lines 13 and 14, my friend (slapping his forehead like an emptied strong-box) frankly declared himself bankrupt, and honourably incompetent, to satisfy the reasonable expectations of the rest of the series!

And ends with a complaint against letter writing:

If you hate writing to me as I hate writing to nearly everybody, I pray you never write—if you do, as you say, care for anything I have done. I will simply assure you, that meaning to begin work in deep earnest, begin without affectation, God knows,—I do not know what will help me more than hearing from you,—and therefore, if you do not so very much hate it, I know I shall hear from you—and very little more about your 'tiring me.'

What a difference a year and a visit to Wimpole Street makes. Miss Barrett must have been quite a woman.

Friday, January 27, 2012

January 27

January 27, 1846 gives us the letter from Miss Barrett to Browning that most coolly explains her father. I say coolly because I do not feel that this is an overly emotional letter. As I see it she is calmly explaining her understanding of her father.  Certain understandings of the back-story are necessary, but let’s just say that this is a 39 year old woman, an intellectual, who has lived with her father and under his apparently benevolent protection all her life. But she is trapped and she knows it.

She is responding to Browning’s notion that Mr. Barrett can be won over to their eventual marriage. She makes it clear in one sentence that this is not possible:

 For him ... he would rather see me dead at his foot than yield the point: and he will say so, and mean it, and persist in the meaning.”

“I believe, I am certain, I have loved him better than the rest of his children. I have heard the fountain within the rock, and my heart has struggled in towards him through the stones of the rock ... thrust off ... dropping off ... turning in again and clinging! Knowing what is excellent in him well, loving him as my only parent left, and for himself dearly, notwithstanding that hardness and the miserable 'system' which made him appear harder still, I have loved him and been proud of him for his high qualities, for his courage and fortitude when he bore up so bravely years ago under the worldly reverses which he yet felt acutely—more than you and I could feel them—but the fortitude was admirable. Then came the trials of love—then, I was repulsed too often, ... made to suffer in the suffering of those by my side ... depressed by petty daily sadnesses and terrors, from which it is possible however for an elastic affection to rise again as past. Yet my friends used to say 'You look broken-spirited'—and it was true. In the midst, came my illness,—and when I was ill he grew gentler and let me draw nearer than ever I had done: and after that great stroke ... you know ... though that fell in the middle of a storm of emotion and sympathy on my part, which drove clearly against him, God seemed to strike our hearts together by the shock; and I was grateful to him for not saying aloud what I said to myself in my agony, 'If it had not been for you'...! And comparing my self-reproach to what I imagined his self-reproach must certainly be (for if I had loved selfishly, he had not been kind), I felt as if I could love and forgive him for two ... (I knowing that serene generous departed spirit, and seeming left to represent it) ... and I did love him better than all those left to me to love in the world here. I proved a little my affection for him, by coming to London at the risk of my life rather than diminish the comfort of his home by keeping a part of my family away from him. And afterwards for long and long he spoke to me kindly and gently, and of me affectionately and with too much praise; and God knows that I had as much joy as I imagined myself capable of again, in the sound of his footstep on the stairs, and of his voice when he prayed in this room; my best hope, as I have told him since, being, to die beneath his eyes. Love is so much to me naturally—it is, to all women! and it was so much to me to feel sure at last that he loved me—to forget all blame—to pull the weeds up from that last illusion of life:—and this, till the Pisa-business, which threw me off, far as ever, again—farther than ever—when George said 'he could not flatter me' and I dared not flatter myself. But do you believe that I never wrote what I did not feel: I never did. And I ask one kindness more ... do not notice what I have written here. Let it pass. We can alter nothing by ever so many words. After all, he is the victim. He isolates himself—and now and then he feels it ... the cold dead silence all round, which is the effect of an incredible system. If he were not stronger than most men, he could not bear it as he does. With such high qualities too!—so upright and honourable—you would esteem him, you would like him, I think. And so ... dearest ... let that be the last word.

I dare say you have asked yourself sometimes, why it was that I never managed to draw you into the house here, so that you might make your own way. Now that is one of the things impossible to me. I have not influence enough for that. George can never invite a friend of his even. Do you see? The people who do come here, come by particular license and association ... Capt. Surtees Cook being one of them. Once ... when I was in high favour too ... I asked for Mr. Kenyon to be invited to dinner—he an old college friend, and living close by and so affectionate to me always—I felt that he must be hurt by the neglect, and asked. It was in vain. Now, you see—“

This is a long quote and I hope you are still with me here. A couple of things stand out to me in this letter. The use of the word “terrors” is interesting in that she surely knows the meaning of the word. I don’t think this is hyperbole; he must have been a totally domineering man. The power over his adult children must have been amazing. Keep in mind that all of eight of her brothers turned against her for marrying Browning and leaving to lead (what we would call) a normal life.

Next is the notion that she was grateful to him for never blaming her for her brother’s death by drowning, “……not saying aloud what I said to myself in my agony, 'If it had not been for you'...!” A truly loving parent would have disabused her of any guilt by assuring her that it was no fault of hers. Perhaps it never occurred to him that she felt at fault, but it is more realistic to understand that he did blame her for being ‘selfish’ and so punished her with silence.

Finally, this comment shows a maturity of understanding that makes me think that she had resigned herself to either live with the perpetual domination by pursuing a deeper inner life or resigning to death: “After all, he is the victim. He isolates himself—and now and then he feels it ... the cold dead silence all round, which is the effect of an incredible system.”

To be loved but feared. She never in her life gave up loving her father despite the fact that he treated her as dead after she left his house. She hung his portrait in her bedroom at Casa Guidi the rest of her life. Extraordinary. Christian.

Tomorrow we will get Browning’s response. Will he explode in indignation?  Hmm…this might make or break the courtship……stay tuned……

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January 25 Kinda...

Well, there are no specific letters dated January 25th that I can spot, but there is an interesting letter dated simply 'January 1845' that was written by Miss Barrett to Mrs. Martin. She mentions that she is now corresponding with Mr. Browning who she calls 'poet and mystic.'
More interesting are her comments on Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation . Published, according to the ever handy Wiki, in 1844, the book was recommended to her by Mrs. Jameson. Yet, Miss Barrett, who was normally on the cutting edge in her reading did not seem eager. She said it sounded "one of the most melancholy books in the world". Well, she was probably right. Although Wiki says that Albert read is aloud to Victoria. Oh dear. "A little light reading tonight your Majesty?" Yeah. Me neither. The things women do for love.

To read some more letter from Miss Barrett, click here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 23

Ok, for all of you clamoring to read the letters from our poets, you can find the first volume here.

The theme of Miss Barrett’s January 23, 1846 letter seems to be irony.  First Browning has made much of the idea that, “you have 'lucid moments,' and 'strengthen' yourself into the wisdom of learning to love me—and, upon consideration, it does not seem to be so hard after all ... there is 'less for the future to take away' than you had supposed—so that is the way?

Then she thinks it is wonderful that the great poet of the age cannot make a pen.   

Next she touches on a theme that is repeated constantly in the letters and in the “Sonnets”:

“Mr. Kenyon told me about a year ago that he had been painfully employed that morning in parting two—dearer than friends—and he had done it he said, by proving to either, that he or she was likely to mar the prospects of the other. 'If I had spoken to each, of himself or herself,' he said, 'I never could have done it.'

Was not that an ingenious cruelty?”

But, she did it with a smile; she does love to tease Browning. It just made him work all the harder.

But Browning takes it well as he responds:

“Now, of all perverse interpretations that ever were and never ought to have been, commend me to this of Ba's—after I bade her generosity 'understand me,' too!—which meant, 'let her pick out of my disjointed sentences a general meaning, if she can,—which I very well know their imperfect utterance would not give to one unsupplied with the key of my whole heart's-mystery'—and Ba, with the key in her hand, to pretend and poke feathers and penholders into the key-hole, and complain that the wards are wrong!”

See what I mean about his analogies? They are ever constant, as was he……

And see how hard he works:

“On the contrary I tell you, Ba, my own heart's dearest, I will provoke you tenfold worse; will tell you all that comes uppermost, and what frightens me or reassures me, in moments lucid or opaque—and when all the pen-stumps and holders refuse to open the lock, out will come the key perforce; and once put that knowledge—of the entire love and worship of my heart and soul—to its proper use, and all will be clear—tell me to-morrow that it will be clear when I call you to account and exact strict payment for every word and phrase and full-stop and partial stop, and no stop at all, in this wicked little note which got so treacherously the kisses and the thankfulness—written with no penholder that is to belong to me, I hope—but with the feather, possibly, which Sycorax wiped the dew from, as Caliban remembered when he was angry!”

Yes, her light teasing brought out a rambling sentence that ends with The Tempest! Yes, she knew how to stir up his creative juices. He was such a show off.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

January 22

On January 22, 1846 Miss Barrett responded to Browning’s show of manliness in the previous days letters by telling him how much she liked his new poem, “Luria”. It is interesting to me that she is more interested in the story than the mechanics of the poetry. The fact that she loved stories and novels goes a long way to explaining how Browning appealed to her. He was full of stories. Many of his arguments in the letters take the form of extended analogies that ramble into disjointed stories of people he has met or heard or read about. His mind must have been racing at all times making connections amongst all kinds of subjects.

Miss Barrett is certainly not shy about giving her opinion about what might be corrected in the poem but her overall praise seems to dampen what might have been presumption in another person. She suggests a replacement of ‘spirit’ for ‘sprites’ in the following lines:

The angel in thee and rejects the sprites
That ineffectual crowd about his strength,
And mingle with his work and claim a share!—

“But why not 'spirits' rather than 'sprites,' which has a different association by custom? 'Spirits' is quite short enough, it seems to me, for a last word—it sounds like a monosyllable that trembles—or thrills, rather.” Not much of a correction for a poem of “Luria’s” length.

Other business in the letter included the question of whether he wanted her old pen holder. This gift giving goes on for several letters, wherein the poets discuss the finer points of nibs and holders. This I analogize to modern couples passing on their old Macs and Dells (although passing on old Dells seems improbable given that they are usually passed to the landfill before…..).

After a bit of the old tease about his deficit of letters she moves on to the subject of his manly speech about what a great husband he would make as opposed to what a poor excuse for a father that she has. I was holding out for her to thump him for his braggadocio, but she placates because she can’t help but agree with Browning:

“But the first letter was not what you feared—I know you too well not to know how that letter was written and with what intention. Do you, on the other hand, endeavour to comprehend how there may be an eccentricity and obliquity in certain relations and on certain subjects, while the general character stands up worthily of esteem and regard—even of yours. Mr. Kenyon says broadly that it is monomania—neither more nor less. Then the principle of passive filial obedience is held—drawn (and quartered) from Scripture. He sees the law and the gospel on his side. Only the other day, there was a setting forth of the whole doctrine, I hear, down-stairs—'passive obedience, and particularly in respect to marriage.' One after the other, my brothers all walked out of the room, and there was left for sole auditor, Captain Surtees Cook, who had especial reasons for sitting it out against his will,—so he sate and asked 'if children were to be considered slaves' as meekly as if he were asking for information. I could not help smiling when I heard of it.”

She loves her Papa but she sees him for the tyrant he is. Her wonderful humor in the “and quartered” aside is worthy. Even today there are people living in this type of psychological bondage. Wives stuck in marriages that cannot be ended due to lack of funds and abundance of children, often held in place by religious conditioning or fear of societal disapproval. How many of these poor souls are blind to the bondage? Is it worse that she sees it and has felt and was still feeling that she could do very little to escape it? And even if she escaped she was leaving her sisters behind in perhaps a worse state due to her impertinence. The real possibility that she would not be able to communicate with her totally father dependant sisters existed. Our poetess risked far more than our poet in this affair.

But with such good humor. She is in a teasing mood as she ends the letter:

“Dearest—when, in the next dream, you meet me in the 'landing-place,' tell me why I am to stand up to be reviewed again. What a fancy, that is of yours, for 'full-lengths'—and what bad policy, if a fancy, to talk of it so! because you would have had the glory and advantage, and privilege, of seeing me on my feet twenty times before now, if you had not impressed on me, in some ineffable manner, that to stand on my head would scarcely be stranger. Nevertheless you shall have it your own way, as you have everything—which makes you so very, very, exemplarily submissive, you know!”

Browning’s letter of the 22nd is short and full of good humor as he returns the teasing about the pen holder. He accuses her of (essentially) attempting to win his love by the gift. Cute. Characteristically he makes a short (not characteristic) analogy about a play full of non-sequiturs or perhaps sequiturs. He also confesses that he uses Bramah nibs because he cannot make a quill pen. Shocking in a writer!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 19

January 19th 1846 was a pretty busy letter day for our poets. It appears that it was a Monday and there were two letters postmarked from Browning and one from Miss Barrett. This was rather the exception since she was far more prolific than he. He apparently hated writing letters. I suspect that he didn't much like writing poetry either. He complained about both on a pretty regular basis.
At this point they were a year into their relationship, the first letter being sent January 10th 1945. In Browning's first letter, written on Sunday, he is showing his manly side, explaining how he will not allow anyone to hurt the fair Miss Barrett.
"Do you know, that I never used to dream unless indisposed, and rarely then—(of late I dream of you, but quite of late)—and those nightmare dreams have invariably been of one sort. I stand by (powerless to interpose by a word even) and see the infliction of tyranny on the unresisting man or beast (generally the last)—and I wake just in time not to die: let no one try this kind of experiment on me or mine!"
As is his way, he illustrates his point by telling a long story about a man who bullied his wife into crying to show off in front of a group of men. At which point Browning cuts the heathen husband, "Presently we went up-stairs—there sate the wife with dried eyes, and a smile at the tea-table—and by her, in all the pride of conquest, with her hand in his, our friend—disposed to be very good-natured of course. I listened arrectis auribus, and in a minute he said he did not know somebody I mentioned. I told him, that I easily conceived—such a person would never condescend to know him, &c., and treated him to every consequence ingenuity could draw from that text—and at the end marched out of the room; and the valorous man, who had sate like a post, got up, took a candle, followed me to the door, and only said in unfeigned wonder, 'What can have possessed you, my dear B?'"
Miss Barrett could have no doubt that Browning would be the perfect husband after that tale, could she not?
I personally cannot wait to read Miss B's response to this parley. I have to think that she laughed, I mean who wouldn't?
But even he saw how overwrought his letter was and immediately penned another letter beginning:
"Love, if you knew but how vexed I was, so very few minutes after my note left last night; how angry with the unnecessary harshness into which some of the phrases might be construed—you would forgive me, indeed."
So, of course, she will be too kind to toy with him too much over it. Anyway, that explains why he actually sent two letters on the same day. That probably won't happen again until he has to apologize again. And he will, because he is an opinionated, headstrong lad.
Meanwhile, Miss B is not happy because the Athenæum has given her boy a bad review. Well, he thought it was 'kind and satisfactory' but she wasn't buying that. Her statement that, "You never are misty, not even in 'Sordello'—never vague," surely demonstrates that they must have had some sort of cosmic connection, because, let's face it, most people were not living on Planet Browning and had no clue what he was talking about.
But she follows her denunciation of the idiot critics with a report of her walk downstairs where her brother was "so glad to see" her. She didn't say if she walked back upstairs or if her ‘glad’ brother carried her back up. Either all her brothers were wonderfully strong or she was tiny. Even a tiny woman with all those Mid-Victorian clothes must have been a handful.

Miss B. ends with a bit of glee that Browning would be visiting the next day and she counts his letters,A hundred letters I have, by this last, ... to set against Napoleon's Hundred Days—did you know that?” Of course Napoleon was defeated at the end of his hundred days. Hmm…could there possibly be a hidden meaning here?

The first volume of The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett as edited by their son Robert Barrett Browning can be found at the Project Gutenberg website.

The letters as edited by Elvan Kintner can be purchased used via Amazon. (The footnotes are a delight!)

Also, you can eventually get all of the Browning correspondence from Wedgestone Press which is on volume 18 of their continuing series.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The idea for this blog started after I read the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Written during their two year courtship, I was fascinated by the setting and background of these two famous poets. I read several biographies of each of them and in many instances it did not seem that the authors of these books had read the same letters I had. Was it me or were highly respected scholars making easy interpretations guided by pop psychology? (As Miss Barrett herself was accused of having too much book knowledge and not enough knowledge of the world to succeed as a truly great poet?) This is not to say that the biographers are always wrong, after all, facts are facts. But the interpretation of these facts and in many cases the psychological motivation  of the individuals involved are open for interpretation. There are many interesting and valid arguments and a lot of total rubbish out there.

One example of that I think most biographers miss is that Elizabeth was quite funny and a great teaser. I attribute this to the fact of her being the eldest sibling in a large family of boys.

What I would like to do here is comment on not only the Barrett Browning courtship letters but their other copious letters, especially from Elizabeth, in a fluid calendar. Letters from many non sequential years commented on as our year scrolls by. Also to comment on books and essays as I read them. There are a few that I have been so disgusted by there was a temptation to toss them across the room, but out of respect for the book, as opposed to the author, I have refrained from accosting the walls and breaking the backs of the books. My interest in these two poets has also lead me to interest in other 19th Century personalities who touched paths with them and I suspect that I will have comments on them as well.

I will add links to the books I refer to when possible. But keep in mind that I am not a professional writer and I do not have a webmaster or editor. I am not a great typist and my computer skills are a work in progress. If I criticise your book or essay, it is not personal, it is just my opinion. You can tell me that I am wrong. I may agree with you eventually. This is a learning experience for me. I work, so I may not post every day, but I believe that I am interested enough to post on a semi-regular basis. I also reserve the right to post on unrelated subjects as life continues on all fronts.