Tuesday, February 28, 2012

February 27

February 27 again brings riches in the form of letters. We will begin in 1845 with Miss Barrett telling Browning that for all his enthusiasm it is not spring yet and she is not ready to see him. But she is ready to discuss poetry:

"...spring will really come some day I hope and believe, and the warm settled weather with it, and that then I shall be probably fitter for certain pleasures than I can appear even to myself now...

For myself and my own doings, you shall hear directly what I have been doing, and what I am about to do. Some years ago, as perhaps you may have heard, (but I hope not, for the fewer who hear of it the better)—some years ago, I translated or rather undid into English, the 'Prometheus' of Æschylus. To speak of this production moderately (not modestly), it is the most miserable of all miserable versions of the class. It was completed (in the first place) in thirteen days—the iambics thrown into blank verse, the lyrics into rhymed octosyllabics and the like,—and the whole together as cold as Caucasus, and as flat as the nearest plain. To account for this, the haste may be something; but if my mind had been properly awakened at the time, I might have made still more haste and done it better. Well,—the comfort is, that the little book was unadvertised and unknown, and that most of the copies (through my entreaty of my father) are shut up in the wardrobe of his bedroom. If ever I get well I shall show my joy by making a bonfire of them. In the meantime, the recollection of this sin of mine has been my nightmare and daymare too, and the sin has been the 'Blot on my escutcheon.' I could look in nobody's face, with a 'Thou canst not say I did it'—I know, I did it. And so I resolved to wash away the transgression, and translate the tragedy over again. It was an honest straightforward proof of repentance—was it not? and I have completed it, except the transcription and last polishing. If Æschylus stands at the foot of my bed now, I shall have a little breath to front him. I have done my duty by him, not indeed according to his claims, but in proportion to my faculty. Whether I shall ever publish or not (remember) remains to be considered—that is a different side of the subject. If I do, it may be in a magazine—or—but this is another ground. And then, I have in my head to associate with the version, a monodrama of my own,—not a long poem, but a monologue of Æschylus as he sate a blind exile on the flats of Sicily and recounted the past to his own soul, just before the eagle cracked his great massy skull with a stone.
But my chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem—a poem as completely modern as 'Geraldine's Courtship,' running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like, 'where angels fear to tread'; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive of it out plainly. That is my intention. It is not mature enough yet to be called a plan. I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment."

I bring you a long excerpt because it is wonderfully interesting to me how ambitious she was. She really did live for her poetry. I think this enthusiasm for her poetry certainly demonstrates that she was interested in the poet and not the man. She wanted to share with and learn from Browning, not marry him. Even so, she enjoyed the social interaction with a man she hoped would treat her as an equal, so she teased him as she teased her brothers about how she knows of the skulls and spiders in his room:

"Who told me of your skulls and spiders? Why, couldn't I know it without being told? Did Cornelius Agrippa know nothing without being told? Mr. Horne never spoke it to my ears—(I never saw him face to face in my life, although we have corresponded for long and long), and he never wrote it to my eyes. Perhaps he does not know that I know it. Well, then! if I were to say that I heard it from you yourself, how would you answer? And it was so. Why, are you not aware that these are the days of mesmerism and clairvoyance? Are you an infidel? I have believed in your skulls for the last year, for my part."

Interestingly she ends with a comment that surely endeared her to Browning. Having told her that John Mill had commented of his poem Pauline that 'the writer possesses a deeper self-consciousness than I ever knew in a sane human being' she responds with a single line:

"Of course you are self-conscious—How could you be a poet otherwise? Tell me."

But let's jump ahead to 1846 when our poets know each other better and are continuing their discussion of how a third person might view them. Browning takes up the discussion:

As for the 'third person,' my sweet Ba, he was a wise speaker from the beginning; and in our case he will say, turning to me—'the late Robert Hall—when a friend admired that one with so high an estimate of the value of intellectuality in woman should yet marry some kind of cook-maid animal, as did the said Robert; wisely answered, "you can't kiss Mind"! May you not discover eventually,' (this is to me) 'that mere intellectual endowments—though incontestably of the loftiest character—mere Mind, though that Mind be Miss B's—cannot be kissed—nor, repent too late the absence of those humbler qualities, those softer affections which, like flowerets at the mountain's foot, if not so proudly soaring as, as, as!...' and so on...So judges the third person! and if, to help him, we let him into your room at Wimpole Street, suffered him to see with Flush's eyes, he would say with just as wise an air 'True, mere personal affections may be warm enough, but does it augur well for the durability of an attachment that it should be wholly, exclusively based on such perishable attractions as the sweetness of a mouth, the beauty of an eye? I could wish, rather, to know that there was something of less transitory nature co-existent with this—some congeniality of Mental pursuit, some—' Would he not say that?

Which leads one to wonder what exactly was going on in that particular room in Wimpole Street? But Miss Barrett is having none of it:

"If all third persons were as foolish as this third person of yours, ever dearest, first and second persons might follow their own devices without losing much in the way of good counsel. But you are unlucky in your third person as far as the wits go, he talks a great deal of nonsense, and Flush, who is sensible, will have nothing to do with him, he says, any more than you will with Sir Moses:—he is quite a third person singular for the nonsense he talks!"

Not much talk about poetry now, for all her best intentions.

"And Mrs. Jameson was kind beyond speaking of, and talked of taking me to Italy. What do you say? It is somewhere about the fifth or sixth proposition of the sort which has come to me. I shall be embarrassed, it seems to me, by the multitude of escorts to Italy. But the kindness, one cannot laugh at so much kindness."

This is another interesting note for all of those people who think that without Browning she was stuck forever in Wimpole Street. All through the spring and summer of 1846 sundry people were offering to accompany her to Italy. She could have gone with any of them if she really wanted to. She had the funds. She simply needed the right motivation. It was a lot more fun to go to Italy with Browning than with Mrs. Jameson.

And then they discuss flowers--not poetry:

The first you ever gave me was a yellow rose sent in a letter, and shall I tell you what that means—the yellow rose? 'Infidelity,' says the dictionary of flowers. You see what an omen, ... to begin with!

Browning's next letter discusses the first person and the third:

To be sure my 'first person' was nonsensical, and, in that respect made speak properly, I hope, only he was cut short in the middle of his performance by the exigencies of the post. So, never mind what such persons say, my sweetest, because they know nothing at all—quod erat demonstrandum [as required]...Ah, to-morrow! There is a lesson from all this writing and mistaking and correcting and being corrected; and what, but that a word goes safely only from lip to lip, dearest? See how the cup slipped from the lip and snapped the chrystals, you say! But the writing is but for a time—'a time and times and half a time!'—would I knew when the prophetic weeks end! Still, one day, as I say, no more writing, (and great scandalization of the third person, peeping through the fringes of Flush's ears!)

Sometimes the only poetry is love...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 26

We have letter after wonderful letter on February 26 which we will look at chronologically.
Browning's fifth letter to Miss Barrett was sent February 26, 1845 and anticipates spring and a meeting:

"Real warm Spring, dear Miss Barrett, and the birds know it; and in Spring I shall see you, surely see you—for when did I once fail to get whatever I had set my heart upon? As I ask myself sometimes, with a strange fear. I took up this paper to write a great deal—now, I don't think I shall write much—'I shall see you,' I say!"

I am sure Miss Barrett, who examines every letter very carefully, is wondering what 'strange fear' Browning is having. However, he writes an especially chatty letter today, describing the poems he is working on:

"That 'Luria' you enquire about, shall be my last play—for it is but a play, woe's me! I have one done here, 'A Soul's Tragedy,' as it is properly enough called, but that would not do to end with (end I will), and Luria is a Moor, of Othello's country, and devotes himself to something he thinks Florence, and the old fortune follows—all in my brain yet, but the bright weather helps and I will soon loosen my Braccio and Puccio (a pale discontented man), and Tiburzio (the Pisan, good true fellow, this one), and Domizia the Lady—loosen all these on dear foolish (ravishing must his folly be), golden-hearted Luria, all these with their worldly-wisdom and Tuscan shrewd ways; and, for me, the misfortune is, I sympathise just as much with these as with him,—so there can no good come of keeping this wild company any longer, and 'Luria' and the other sadder ruin of one Chiappino—these got rid of, I will do as you bid me, and—say first I have some Romances and Lyrics, all dramatic, to dispatch, and then, I shall stoop of a sudden under and out of this dancing ring of men and women hand in hand, and stand still awhile, should my eyes dazzle, and when that's over, they will be gone and you will be there, pas vrai? For, as I think I told you, I always shiver involuntarily when I look—no, glance—at this First Poem of mine to be. 'Now,' I call it, what, upon my soul,—for a solemn matter it is,—what is to be done now, believed now, so far as it has been revealed to me—solemn words, truly—and to find myself writing them to any one else! Enough now."

The people he knows:

"I know Tennyson 'face to face,'—no more than that. I know Carlyle and love him—know him so well, that I would have told you he had shaken that grand head of his at 'singing,' so thoroughly does he love and live by it. When I last saw him, a fortnight ago, he turned, from I don't know what other talk, quite abruptly on me with, 'Did you never try to write a Song? Of all things in the world, that I should be proudest to do.' Then came his definition of a song—then, with an appealing look to Mrs. C., 'I always say that some day in spite of nature and my stars, I shall burst into a song' (he is not mechanically 'musical,' he meant, and the music is the poetry, he holds, and should enwrap the thought as Donne says 'an amber-drop enwraps a bee'), and then he began to recite an old Scotch song, stopping at the first rude couplet, 'The beginning words are merely to set the tune, they tell me'—and then again at the couplet about—or, to the effect that—'give me' (but in broad Scotch) 'give me but my lass, I care not for my cogie.' 'He says,' quoth Carlyle magisterially, 'that if you allow him the love of his lass, you may take away all else, even his cogie, his cup or can, and he cares not,' just as a professor expounds Lycophron."

And the items on the desk where he works:

Who told you of my sculls and spider webs—Horne? Last year I petted extraordinarily a fine fellow, (a garden spider—there was the singularity,—the thin clever-even-for-a-spider-sort, and they are so 'spirited and sly,' all of them—this kind makes a long cone of web, with a square chamber of vantage at the end, and there he sits loosely and looks about), a great fellow that housed himself, with real gusto, in the jaws of a great scull, whence he watched me as I wrote, and I remember speaking to Horne about his good points. Phrenologists look gravely at that great scull, by the way, and hope, in their grim manner, that its owner made a good end. He looks quietly, now, out at the green little hill behind. I have no little insight to the feelings of furniture, and treat books and prints with a reasonable consideration. How some people use their pictures, for instance, is a mystery to me; very revolting all the same—portraits obliged to face each other for ever,—prints put together in portfolios. My Polidoro's perfect Andromeda along with 'Boors Carousing,' by Ostade,—where I found her,—my own father's doing, or I would say more.

Several things here could stand a second look. 'Chiappino' will become their name for Miss Barrett's erstwhile suitor, George Barrett Hunter, a 'sadder ruin' of a man. Also, the legend of Perseus and Andromeda becomes a standard measure of the myth of the Brownings, with Browning's Perseus saving Barrett's Andromeda. Dormer Creston published "Andromeda in Wimpole Street" in 1931. I prefer to think that Andromeda freed herself, but that makes the hero less heroic and we all know that proper stories must have a helpless victim to be rescued by a brave hero. A pair of equals rescuing each other and setting out on a quest together is perhaps too modern a myth.

When Miss Barrett wrote to Browning on February 26, 1846 she continues their discussion of their expectations during their first letters and she admits that perhaps he didn't set out to love whoever he met:

I confess that while I was writing those words I had a thought that they were not quite yours as you said them...But I agree that it is best not to talk—I 'gave it up' as a riddle long ago. Let there be 'analysis' even, and it will not be solution. I have my own thoughts of course, and you have yours, and the worst is that a third person looking down on us from some snow-capped height, and free from personal influences, would have his thoughts too, and he would think that if you had been reasonable as usual you would have gone to Italy. I have by heart (or by head at least) what the third person would think. The third person thundered to me in an abstraction for ever so long, and at intervals I hear him still, only you shall not to-day, because he talks 'damnable iterations' and teazes you. Nay, the first person is teazing you now perhaps, without going any further, and yet I must go a little further, just to say (after accepting all possible unlikelinesses and miracles, because everything was miraculous and impossible) that it was agreed between us long since that you did not love me for anything—your having no reason for it is the only way of your not seeming unreasonable. Also for my own sake. I like it to be so—I cannot have peace with the least change from it. Dearest, take the baron's hawthorn bough which, in spite of his fine dream of it is dead since the other day, and so much the worse than when I despised it last—take that dead stick and push it upright into the sand as the tide rises, and the whole blue sea draws up its glittering breadth and length towards and around it. But what then? What does that prove? ... as the philosopher said of the poem. So we ought not to talk of such things; and we get warned off even in the accidental illustrations taken up to light us. Still, the stick certainly did not draw the sea.

As the discussion of the Baron and the Hawthorn twig continues, so the discussion of this Third Person will continue through several letters, to great effect. Browning keeps at her and answers each of her objections point for point.

But she ends the letter with a teasing response to his appeal for her to continue her poetry:

"As for myself, I believe that you set about exhorting me to be busy, just that I might not reproach you for the over-business. Confess that that was the only meaning of the exhortation. But no, you are quite serious, you say. You even threaten me in a sort of underground murmur, which sounds like a nascent earthquake; and if I do not write so much a day directly, your stipendiary magistrateship will take away my license to be loved ... I am not to be Ba to you any longer ... you say! And is this right? now I ask you. Ever so many chrystals fell off by that stroke of the baton, I do assure you. Only you did not mean quite what you said so too articulately, and you will unsay it, if you please, and unthink it near the elms.

As for the writing, I will write ... I have written ... I am writing. You do not fancy that I have given up writing?—No. Only I have certainly been more loitering and distracted than usual in what I have done, which is not my fault—nor yours directly—and I feel an indisposition to setting about the romance, the hand of the soul shakes. I am too happy and not calm enough, I suppose, to have the right inclination. Well—it will come. But all in blots and fragments there are verses enough, to fill a volume done in the last year."

By February 26, 1852 our pair have been married more than five years and Mrs. Browning is writing to Mrs. Jameson in the aftermath of Miss Mitford publishing a biographical sketch that has disturbed Mrs. Browning. But she is already feeling guilty of her anger:

Oh, if our friends would but put off anatomising one till after one was safely dead, and call to mind that, previously, we have nerves to be agonised and morbid brains to be driven mad! I am morbid, I know. I can't bear some words even from Robert. Like the lady who lay in the grave, and was ever after of the colour of a shroud, so I am white-souled, the past has left its mark with me for ever. And now (this is the worst) every newspaper critic who talks of my poems may refer to other things. I shall not feel myself safe a moment from references which stab like a knife.
But poor dear Miss Mitford, if we don't forgive what's meant as kindness, how are we to forgive what's meant as injury? In my first agitation I felt it as a real vexation that I couldn't be angry with her. How could I, poor thing? She has always loved me, and been so anxious to please me, and this time she seriously thought that Robert and I would be delighted. Extraordinary defect of comprehension!
Still, I did not, I could not, conceal from her that she had given me great pain, and she replied in a tone which really made me almost feel ungrateful for being pained, she said 'rather that her whole book had perished than have given me a moment's pain.' How are you to feel after that?
For the rest, it appears that she had merely come forward to the rescue of my reputation, no more than so. Sundry romantic tales had been in circulation about me. I was 'in widow's weeds' in my habitual costume—and, in fact, before I was married I had grievously scandalised the English public (the imaginative part of the public), and it was expedient to 'tirer de l'autre coté [learn from the other side].'
Well, I might have laughed at that—but I didn't. I wrote a very affectionate letter, for I really love Miss Mitford, though she understands me no more under certain respects than you in England understand Louis Napoleon and the French nation. Love's love. She meant the best to me—and so, do you, who have a much more penetrating sense of delicacy, forgive her for my sake, dear friend...."

And again she ends on a happy note about her hero, George Sand:

"And now, am I to tell you that I have seen George Sand twice, and am to see her again? Ah, there is no time to tell you, for I must shut up this letter. She sate, like a priestess, the other morning in a circle of eight or nine men, giving no oracles, except with her splendid eyes, sitting at the corner of the fire, and warming her feet quietly, in a general silence of the most profound deference. There was something in the calm disdain of it which pleased me, and struck me as characteristic. She was George Sand, that was enough: you wanted no proof of it. Robert observed that 'if any other mistress of a house had behaved so, he would have walked out of the room'—but, as it was, no sort of incivility was meant. In fact, we hear that she 'likes us very much,' and as we went away she called me 'chère Madame' and kissed me, and desired to see us both again."

I suspect that our gentle Mrs. Browning would have liked, in her heart of hearts, to have 'sate, like a priestess' in a circle of men and viewed her surroundings with a look of disdain. But that was a bridge too far.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February 25

On February 25, 1846 Browning responds to Miss Barrett's accusation that he 'came with the intention of loving whomever I should find'. Browning makes one of his typically complicated denials:

"No! wreathed shells and hollows in ruins, and roofs of caves may transform a voice wonderfully, make more of it or less, or so change it as to almost alter, but turn a 'no' into a 'yes' can no echo (except the Irish one), and I said 'no' to such a charge, and still say 'no.' I did have a presentiment—and though it is hardly possible for me to look back on it now without lending it the true colours given to it by the event, yet I can put them aside, if I please, and remember that I not merely hoped it would not be so (not that the effect I expected to be produced would be less than in anticipation, certainly I did not hope that, but that it would range itself with the old feelings of simple reverence and sympathy and friendship, that I should love you as much as I supposed I could love, and no more) but in the confidence that nothing could occur to divert me from my intended way of life, I made—went on making arrangements to return to Italy. You know—did I not tell you—I wished to see you before I returned? And I had heard of you just so much as seemed to make it impossible such a relation could ever exist."

Ya got that?
I recently read a biography of Browning covering the period after EBB's death, "Robert Browning: A Life After Death" by Pamela Neville-Sington. It is an interesting book which filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of Browning. But the over-riding impression I got from the author was that Miss Barrett was correct, she did ruin his life, not just through her illnesses but by the burden placed upon him with the dreaded Sonnets. And not just his life with her, but his afterlife as well. He does seem to be an angry man in old age but he was an angry man when he was courting her, let alone 25 years after she had died. I suspect that if she had survived to spend old age with him he still would have been angry but she would have moderated his anger. She seemed to have the knack of teasing him out of his anger. And yes, he was often 'vexed' with her in the later years of their marriage, but anyone who is a caregiver for an invalid loses patience-and she was such an opinionated invalid!

We sometimes forget that great men and women are fully human. Browning, for all of his genius, was a conventional man. Middle-class in his morality and his human tastes, raised up by a woman of a higher standard-as he wanted, but drawn to the conventional all his life. EBB was far more avant garde than he could ever allow himself to be, with her interest in Spiritualism and very unconventional political stands. It was almost like she deliberately courted controversy. As evidence of his conventionality I point to his letters to George Barrett many years after her death in which he expressed acute embarrassment at her letters that discuss Spiritualism and his wish to have them destroyed for fear that they would hurt her reputation. Having said that, all evidence points the fact that he loved her, defended her reputation and held her on her pedestal until he died, despite all of his masculine dalliances. Twenty eight years is a long time for anyone to live in the shadow of the dead.

But let us return to our daily letter. Browning now addresses something that they both have noticed and we have touched on in the blog. The fact that they communicate differently in person than they do through the letters.

"Now I will convince you! yourself have noticed the difference between the letters and the writer; the greater 'distance of the latter from you,' why was that? Why, if not because the conduct began with him, with one who had now seen you—was no continuation of the conduct, as influenced by the feeling, of the letters—else, they, if near, should have enabled him, if but in the natural course of time and with increase of familiarity, to become nearer—but it was not so! The letters began by loving you after their way—but what a world-wide difference between that love and the true, the love from seeing and hearing and feeling, since you make me resolve, what now lies blended so harmoniously, into its component parts...and if you let me, love, I will not again, ever again, consider how it came and whence, and when, so curiously, so pryingly, but believe that it was always so, and that it all came at once, all the same; the more unlikelinesses the better, for they set off the better the truth of truths that here, ('how begot? how nourished?')—here is the whole wondrous Ba filling my whole heart and soul; and over-filling it, because she is in all the world, too, where I look, where I fancy. At the same time, because all is so wondrous and so sweet, do you think that it would be so difficult for me to analyse it, and give causes to the effects in sufficiently numerous instances, even to 'justify my presentiment?' Ah, dear, dearest Ba, I could, could indeed, could account for all, or enough! But you are unconscious, I do believe, of your power, and the knowledge of it would be no added grace, perhaps! So let us go on—taking a lesson out of the world's book in a different sense. You shall think I love you for—(tell me, you must, what for) while in my secret heart I know what my 'mission of humanity' means, and what telescopic and microscopic views it procures me. Enough—"

His love for her pried into him. I love that image. He ends the letter by urging her to continue writing her poetry which is interesting given her response in the next letter.

"You that in all else help me and will help me, beyond words—beyond dreams—if, because I find you, your own works stop—'then comes the Selah and the voice is hushed.' Oh, no, no, dearest, so would the help cease to be help—the joy to be joy, Ba herself to be quite Ba, and my own Siren singing song for song. Dear love, will that be kind, and right, and like the rest? Write and promise that all shall be resumed, the romance-poem chiefly, and I will try and feel more yours than ever now. Am I not with you in the world, proud of you—and vain, too, very likely, which is all the sweeter if it is a sin as you teach me. Indeed dearest, I have set my heart on your fulfilling your mission—my heart is on it! Bless you, my Ba—"

Friday, February 24, 2012

February 24

Today let's look at two letters from February 24 that illustrate EBB's view or views of women and their place in the world. February 24,1846 finds her in love with Browning and explaining to him her goals when she began her correspondence with him:

"My ambition when we began our correspondence, was simply that you should forget I was a woman (being weary and blasée of the empty written gallantries, of which I have had my share and all the more perhaps from my peculiar position which made them so without consequence), that you should forget that and let us be friends, and consent to teach me what you knew better than I, in art and human nature, and give me your sympathy in the meanwhile. I am a great hero-worshipper and had admired your poetry for years, and to feel that you liked to write to me and be written to was a pleasure and a pride, as I used to tell you I am sure, and then your letters were not like other letters, as I must not tell you again. Also you influenced me, in a way in which no one else did."

She sees herself as not just a woman but as a woman artist trying to break out of the mold of a woman artist, wanting to learn from a man and be treated as an equal by a man.

On February 24, 1855 EBB writes to her old traveling companion, Mrs. Jameson (also a writer, on art and history) about her meeting Florence Nightingale:

"I know Florence Nightingale slightly. She came to see me when we were in London last; and I remember her face and her graceful manner, and the flowers she sent me after afterwards. I honor her from my heart. She is an earnest, noble woman, and has fulfilled her woman's duty where many men have failed.
At the same time, I confess myself to be at a loss to see any new position for the sex, or the most imperfect solution of the 'woman's question,' in this step of hers. If a movement at all, it is retrograde, a revival of old virtues! Since the siege of Troy and earlier, we have had princesses binding wounds with their hands; it's strictly the woman's part, and men understand it so, as you will perceive by the general adhesion and approbation on this late occasion of the masculine dignities. Every man is on his knees before ladies carrying lint, calling them 'angelic she's,' whereas, if they stir an inch as thinkers or artists from the beaten line (involving more good to general humanity; than is involved in lint), the very same men would curse the impudence of the very same women and stop there. I can't see on what ground you think you see here the least gain to the 'woman's question,' so called. It's rather the contrary, to my mind, and, any way, the women of England must give the precedence to the sœurs de charité [sisters of charity], who have magnificently won it in all matters of this kind. For my own part (and apart from the exceptional miseries of the war), I acknowledge to you that I do not consider the best use to which we can put a gifted and accomplished woman is to make her a hospital nurse. If it is, why then woe to us all who are artists! The woman's question is at an end. The men's 'noes' carry it. For the future I hope you will know your place and keep clear of Raffaelle and criticism; and I shall expect to hear of you as an organiser of the gruel department in the hospital at Greenwich, that is, if you have the luck to percer [penetrate] and distinguish yourself."

Her observations are seen by some biographers as criticisms of Miss Nightingale, but this is why primary material is so important. She is not criticising, she is simply making a wry observation about the place of women in the Victorian world. Intelligent, articulate and witty. A great passage.

She ends with a note of despair about the condition of England, the postal service and and the health of another inspirational woman writer:

"Oh, the Crimea! How dismal, how full of despair and horror! The results will, however, be good if we are induced to come down from the English pedestal in Europe of incessant self-glorification, and learn that our close, stifling, corrupt system gives no air nor scope for healthy and effective organisation anywhere. We are oligarchic in all things, from our parliament to our army. Individual interests are admitted as obstacles to the general prosperity. This plague runs through all things with us. It accounts for the fact that, according to the last marriage statistics, thirty per cent, of the male population signed with the mark only. It accounts for the fact that London is at once the largest and ugliest city in Europe. For the rest, if we cannot fight righteous and necessary battles, we must leave our place as a nation, and be satisfied with making pins. Write to me, but don't pay your letters, dear dear friend, and I will tell you why. Through some slip somewhere we have had to pay your two last letters just the same. So don't try it any more. Do you think we grudge postage from you? Tell me if it is true that Harriet Martineau is very ill. What do you hear of her?"

EBB was thinking and working toward an artistic parity with men. Raising women up would only serve to raise men and all of society.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February 23

And so February 23, 1846 brought a sweet and calming letter from Browning who begins by confessing a slip of the lip at the previous night's dinner at Mr. Kenyon's.

"So all was altered, my love—and, instead of Miss T. and the other friend, I had your brother and Procter—to my great pleasure. After, I went to that place, and soon got away, and am very well this morning in the sunshine; which I feel with you, do I not? Yesterday after dinner we spoke of Mrs. Jameson, and, as my wont is—(Here your letter reaches me—let me finish this sentence now I have finished kissing you, dearest beyond all dearness—My own heart's Ba!)—oh, as I am used, I left the talking to go on by itself, with the thought busied elsewhere, till at last my own voice startled me for I heard my tongue utter 'Miss Barrett ... that is, Mrs. Jameson says' ... or 'does ... or does not.' I forget which! And if anybody noticed the gaucherie it must have been just your brother!"

But he moves on to the wooing of a letter writer whose 'very ink and paper' is a palliative:

"The other day I stumbled on a quotation from J. Baptista Porta—wherein he avers that any musical instrument made out of wood possessed of medicinal properties retains, being put to use, such virtues undiminished,—and that, for instance, a sick man to whom you should pipe on a pipe of elder-tree would so receive all the advantage derivable from a decoction of its berries. From whence, by a parity of reasoning, I may discover, I think, that the very ink and paper were—ah, what were they?"

And he must comfort her fear that she has been insolent:

"No more, ever, of that strange suspicion—'insolent'—oh, what a word!—nor suppose I shall particularly wonder at its being fancied applicable to that, of all other passages of your letter! It is quite as reasonable to suspect the existence of such a quality there as elsewhere: how can such a thing, could such a thing come from you to me? But, dear Ba, do you know me better! Do feel that I know you, I am bold to believe, and that if you were to run at me with a pointed spear I should be sure it was a golden sanative, Machaon's* touch, for my entire good, that I was opening my heart to receive! As for words, written or spoken—I, who sin forty times in a day by light words, and untrue to the thought, I am certainly not used to be easily offended by other peoples' words, people in the world. But your words!"

*Machaon was a general and physician present at the siege of Troy.
And then he addressed her sad analogy with Browning as a baron who gave his golden baton to a serf (Miss Barrett) in exchange for a hawthorn twig and then laughed and took it back to the amusement of the entire court.

"As for your apologue, it is naught—as you felt, and so broke off—for the baron knew well enough it was a spray of the magical tree which once planted in his domain would shoot up, and out, and all round, and be glorious with leaves and musical with birds' nests, and a fairy safeguard and blessing thenceforward and for ever, when the foolish baton had been broken into ounces of gold, even if gold it were, and spent and vanished: for, he said, such gold lies in the highway, men pick it up, more of it or less; but this one slip of the flowering tree is all of it on this side Paradise. Whereon he laid it to his heart and was happy—in spite of his disastrous chase the night before, when so far from catching an unicorn, he saw not even a respectable prize-heifer, worth the oil-cake and rape-seed it had doubtless cost to rear her—'insolence!'"

So Browning had read Miss Barrett's mood of unrest and was quietly wise and gentle with his nervous lady today even though he had been out the night before at a wild dinner party, chasing unicorns....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21

Yes, Miss Barrett had writer's remorse after telling Browning that he "would not go" to Russia on a diplomatic mission. She starts the backtracking almost immediately in her February 21, 1846 letter:

"And I have been thinking, thinking since last night that I wrote you then a letter all but ... insolent ... which, do you know, I feel half ashamed to look back upon this morning—particularly what I wrote about 'missions of humanity'—now was it not insolent of me to write so? If I could take my letter again I would dip it into Lethe between the lilies, instead of the post office:—but I can't—so if you wondered, you must forget as far as possible, and understand how it was, and that I was in brimming spirits when I wrote, from two causes ... first, because I had your letter which was a pure goodness of yours, and secondly because you were 'noticeably' better you said, or 'noticeably well' rather, to mind my quotations. So I wrote what I wrote, and gave it to Arabel when she came in at midnight, to give it to Henrietta who goes out before eight in the morning and often takes charge of my letters, and it was too late, at the earliest this morning, to feel a little ashamed."

She is also backing down from her 'over praise' of Browning's letters. She is feeling rather contrite today.

"After all, do you know, I am a little vexed that I should have even seemed to do wrong in my speech about the letters. It must have been wrong, if it seemed so to you, I fancy now. Only I really did no more mean to try your letters ... mine ... such as they are to me now, by the common critical measure, than the shepherds praised the pure tenor of the angels who sang 'Peace upon earth' to them. It was enough that they knew it for angels' singing. So do you forgive me, beloved, and put away from you the thought that I have let in between us any miserable stuff 'de métier,' [business] which I hate as you hate. And I will not say any more about it, not to run into more imprudences of mischief."

There are a number of interesting things in the letter today. One is a reference to a man who was editing some of Miss Barrett's  translation work for publication. Browning had apparently warned her that a certain Mr. Burges had a reputation for replacing the authors' translations with his own more worthy translations. Miss Barrett had subsequently corresponded with the publisher, a Miss Thomson, about this threat:

"Miss Thomson told me that she had determined to change the type of the few pages of her letterpress which had been touched, and that therefore Mr. Burges's revisions of my translations should be revised back again. She appears to be a very acute person, full of quick perceptions—naturally quick, and carefully trained—a little over anxious perhaps about mental lights, and opening her eyes still more than she sees, which is a common fault of clever people, if one must call it a fault. I like her, and she is kind and cordial. Will she ask you to help her book with a translation or two, I wonder."

And there would be a meeting betwixt Browning and one of the brothers Barrett:

"As my sisters did not dine at home yesterday and I see nobody else in the evening, I never heard till just now and from Papa himself, that 'George was invited to meet Mr. Browning and Mr. Procter.' How surprised you will be. It must have been a sudden thought of Mr. Kenyon's...Mr. Kenyon's dinner is a riddle which I cannot read. You are invited to meet Miss Thomson and Mr. Bayley and 'no one else.' George is invited to meet Mr. Browning and Mr. Procter and 'no one else'—just those words. The 'absolu' (do you remember Balzac's beautiful story?) is just you and 'no one else,' the other elements being mere uncertainties, shifting while one looks for them."

And then she admonishes Browning about wrong speaking:

"On the other hand I warn you against saying again what you began to say yesterday and stopped. Do not try it again. What may be quite good sense from me, is from you very much the reverse, and pray observe that difference. Or did you think that I was making my own road clear in the the thing I said about—'jilts'? No, you did not. Yet I am ready to repeat of myself as of others, that if I ceased to love you, I certainly would act out the whole consequence—but that is an impossible 'if' to my nature, supposing the conditions of it otherwise to be probable. I never loved anyone much and ceased to love that person. Ask every friend of mine, if I am given to change even in friendship! And to you...! Ah, but you never think of such a thing seriously—and you are conscious that you did not say it very sagely. You and I are in different positions."

She is trying to make it completely clear that he could 'jilt' her and she expected him to, if he had any sense and she, on the other hand, would 'jilt' him if she so desired, but she would not, because she was a woman. By the same token, which she does not mention, she would withdraw if her health failed her. Thus the deck is stacked.

The other intriging line is, "I never loved anyone much and ceased to love that person." Hmmm...The biographers tell us that this was the Rev. George Barrett Hunter. Apparently he came to visit Miss Barrett once and ran into Browning on the stairs. He thereafter called Browning her "New Cross Knight". Jealous? There is a transcript of a letter attributed to Hunter in "Letters of The Brownings to George Barrett" edited by Paul Landis (Amazon has it). His letter is rather painful to read, being an overlong and repetitious justification, but interesting to compare the styles of her suitors.

She ends this admonition with an illustrative story, as obscure as one of Brownings analogies:

"It befell that there stood in hall a bold baron, and out he spake to one of his serfs ... 'Come thou; and take this baton of my baronie, and give me instead thereof that sprig of hawthorn thou holdest in thine hand.' Now the hawthorn-bough was no larger a thing than might be carried by a wood-pigeon to the nest, when she flieth low, and the baronial baton was covered with fine gold, and the serf, turning it in his hands, marvelled greatly.
And he answered and said, 'Let not my lord be in haste, nor jest with his servant. Is it verily his will that I should keep his golden baton? Let him speak again—lest it repent him of his gift.'
And the baron spake again that it was his will. 'And I'—he said once again—'shall it be lawful for me to keep this sprig of hawthorn, and will it not repent thee of thy gift?'
Then all the servants who stood in hall, laughed, and the serf's hands trembled till they dropped the baton into the rushes, knowing that his lord did but jest....
Which mine did not. Only, de te fabula narratur [the story of you] up to a point."

But she gets back into the teasing mood after receiving Browning's letter in mid-epistle:

"And I have your letter. 'What did I expect?' Why I expected just that, a letter in turn. Also I am graciously pleased (yes, and very much pleased!) to 'let you write to-morrow.' How you spoil me with goodness, which makes one 'insolent' as I was saying, now and then.
The worst is, that I write 'too kind' letters—I!—and what does that criticism mean, pray? It reminds me, at least, of ... now I will tell you what it reminds me of.
A few days ago Henrietta said to me that she was quite uncomfortable. She had written to somebody a not kind enough letter, she thought, and it might be taken ill. 'Are you ever uncomfortable, Ba, after you have sent letters to the post?' she asked me.
'Yes,' I said, 'sometimes, but from a reason just the very reverse of your reason, my letters, when they get into the post, seem too kind,—rather.' And my sisters laughed ... laughed.
But if you think so beside, I must seriously set to work, you see, to correct that flagrant fault, and shall do better in time dis faventibus [with the gods' help], though it will be difficult."

She begins the letter worried that he would think that she was insolent for telling him that he would not go to Russia and ends it by vowing to correct her fault of writing kind letters. It was a good letter day.

Monday, February 20, 2012

February 20

February 20, 1846 Miss Barrett continues their back and forth about letters.

"And I offended you by praising your letters—or rather mine, if you please—as if I had not the right! Still, you shall not, shall not fancy that I meant to praise them in the way you seem to think—by calling them 'graphic,' 'philosophic,'—why, did I ever use such words?...
And if I had the misfortune to think now, when you say it is a fine day, that that is said in more music than it could be said in by another—where is the sin against you, I should like to ask. It is yourself who is the critic, I think, after all. But over all the brine, I hold my letters—just as Camoens did his poem. They are best to me—and they are best. I knew what they were, before I knew what you were—all of you. And I like to think that I never fancied anyone on a level with you, even in a letter."

She loves his letters because she loves his letters. This is one of many mentions of her poem Catarina to Camoens in these letters, although the first from her. Browning refers to it often in the letters, using it to great effect as he playfully flirts with "the sweetest eyes were ever seen."

In his letter of February 19, 1846 Browning had mentioned what he had found in his mail that day, an invitation to a dinner in Harley Street and:

"I also found a note headed 'Strictly private and confidential'—so here it goes from my mouth to my heart—pleasantly proposing that I should start in a few days for St. Petersburg, as secretary to somebody going there on a 'mission of humanity'—grazie tante [many thanks]!"

Miss Barrett was having none of that and spoke out plainly:

"...you will not go. If you were going ... well!—but there is no danger—it would not do you good to go, I am so happy this time as to be able to think—and your 'mission of humanity' lies nearer—'strictly private and confidential'?"

Here is another example of the writer repenting. She will regret sending this glib note as soon as she sends it. What she said is true, he never considered going, but she put it in the form of a demand, which a lady would never do. Especially a lady who was constantly telling her fiance that he was free to break off at any time. A slight faux pas on her part; she let her true feelings be seen. Let's see how she gets out of this one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

February 19

After the rambunctious analysis of Miss Mitford's missive we have more discussion about the quality of letters. On February 19, 1846 Browning decides that Miss Barrett is too effusive in her praise of his letters:

"One thing vexed me in your letter—I will tell you, the praise of my letters. Now, one merit they have—in language mystical—that of having no merit. If I caught myself trying to write finely, graphically &c. &c., nay, if I found myself conscious of having in my own opinion, so written, all would be over! yes, over! I should be respecting you inordinately, paying a proper tribute to your genius, summoning the necessary collectedness,—plenty of all that! But the feeling with which I write to you, not knowing that it is writing,—with you, face and mouth and hair and eyes opposite me, touching me, knowing that all is as I say, and helping out the imperfect phrases from your own intuition—that would be gone—and what in its place? 'Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we write to Ambleside.' No, no, love, nor can it ever be so, nor should it ever be so if—even if, preserving all that intimate relation, with the carelessness, still, somehow, was obtained with no effort in the world, graphic writing and philosophic and what you please—for I will be—would be, better than my works and words with an infinite stock beyond what I put into convenient circulation whether in fine speeches fit to remember, or fine passages to quote. For the rest, I had meant to tell you before now, that you often put me 'in a maze' when you particularize letters of mine—'such an one was kind' &c. I know, sometimes I seem to give the matter up in despair, I take out paper and fall thinking on you, and bless you with my whole heart and then begin: 'What a fine day this is?' I distinctly remember having done that repeatedly—but the converse is not true by any means, that (when the expression may happen to fall more consentaneously to the mind's motion) that less is felt, oh no! But the particular thought at the time has not been of the insufficiency of expression, as in the other instance."

Well, he is right about this letter, there doesn't seem to be a lot to praise there. So, let us turn to what G. K. Chesterton had to say about our poets. The book is entitled "Robert Browning" but Chesterton does a good job with Barrett Browning as well.

"In a time when it was thought necessary for a lady to dilute the wine of poetry to its very weakest tint, Miss Barrett had contrived to produce poetry which was open to literary objection as too heady and too high-coloured. When she erred it was through an Elizabethan audacity and luxuriance, a straining after violent metaphors. With her reappeared in poetry a certain element which had not been present in it since the last days of Elizabethan literature, the fusion of the most elementary human passion with something which can only be described as wit, a certain love of quaint and sustained similes, of parallels wildly logical, and of brazen paradox and antithesis. We find this hot wit, as distinct from the cold wit of the school of Pope, in the puns and buffooneries of Shakespeare.....
Her poems are full of quaint things, of such things as the eyes in the peacock fans of the Vatican, which she describes as winking at the Italian tricolor. She often took the step from the sublime to the ridiculous: but to take this step one must reach the sublime. Elizabeth Barrett contrived to assert, what still needs but then urgently needed assertion, the fact that womanliness, whether in life or poetry, was a positive thing, and not the negative of manliness. Her verse at its best was quite as strong as Browning's own, and very nearly as clever. The difference between their natures was a difference between two primary colours, not between dark and light shades of the same colour...

She had, of course, lived her second and real life in literature and the things of the mind, and this in a very genuine and strenuous sense. Her mental occupations were not mere mechanical accomplishments almost as colourless as the monotony they relieved, nor were they coloured in any visible manner by the unwholesome atmosphere in which she breathed. She used her brains seriously; she was a good Greek scholar, and read Æschylus and Euripides unceasingly with her blind friend, Mr. Boyd; and she had, and retained even to the hour of her death, a passionate and quite practical interest in great public questions. Naturally she was not uninterested in Robert Browning, but it does not appear that she felt at this time the same kind of fiery artistic curiosity that he felt about her. He does appear to have felt an attraction, which may almost be called mystical, for the personality which was shrouded from the world by such sombre curtains. In 1845 he addressed a letter to her in which he spoke of a former occasion on which they had nearly met, and compared it to the sensation of having once been outside the chapel of some marvellous illumination and found the door barred against him. In that phrase it is easy to see how much of the romantic boyhood of Browning remained inside the resolute man of the world into which he was to all external appearance solidifying. Miss Barrett replied to his letters with charming sincerity and humour, and with much of that leisurely self-revelation which is possible for an invalid who has nothing else to do."

I don't necessarily agree that she did not have a curiosity about Browning's work; I believe that was her main interest in him at the time the letter writing began. And to say that she had nothing else to do is silly. She was constantly writing. At the time she was corresponding with Browning and several others she was writing the sonnet sequence and many other poems. However, I do think that Chesterton is one of the few biographers who recognizes the humor and wit in both her letters and poems.



Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 18

February 18, 1850 finds a very interesting letter from Mrs. Browning to the ubiquitous Miss Mitford. Apparently Miss Mitford has sent a new poem by Tennyson. Mrs. Browning digs in right away.

"Now tell me. Apart from the fact of this lyric's being a fragment of fringe from the great poet's 'singing clothes' (as Leigh Hunt says somewhere), and apart from a certain sweetness and rise and fall in the rhythm, do you really see much for admiration in the poem? Is it new in, any way? I admire Tennyson with the most worshipping part of the multitude, as you are aware, but I do notperceive much in this lyric, which strikes me, and Robert also (who goes with me throughout), as quite inferior to the other lyrical snatches in the 'Princess.' By the way, if he introduces it in the 'Princess,' it will be the only rhymedverse in the work. Robert thinks that he was thinking of the Rhine echoes in writing it, and not of any heard in his Irish travels."

Poets talking poetry. Always looking for the new, in herself and others. And other literary news:

"I certainly don't think that the qualities, half savage and half freethinking, expressed in 'Jane Eyre' are likely to suit a model governess or schoolmistress; and it amuses me to consider them in that particular relation. Your account falls like dew upon the parched curiosity of some of our friends here, to whom (as mere gossip, which did not leave you responsible) I couldn't resist the temptation of communicating it. People are so curious—even here among the Raffaels—about this particular authorship, yet nobody seems to have read 'Shirley'; we are too slow in getting new books. First Galignani has to pirate them himself, and then to hand us over the spoils. By the way, there's to be an international copyright, isn't there? Something is talked of it in the 'Athenaeum.' Meanwhile the Americans have already reprinted my husband's new edition. 'Landthieves, I mean pirates.' I used to take that for a slip of the pen in Shakespeare; but it was a slip of the pen into prophecy."

Baby talk:

"Sorry I am at Mrs. —— falling short of your warm-hearted ideas about her! Can you understand a woman's hating a girl because it is not a boy—her first child too? I understand it so little that scarcely I can believe it. Some women have, however, undeniably an indifference to children, just as many men have, though it must be unnatural and morbid in both sexes. Men often affect it—very foolishly, if they count upon the scenic effects; affectation never succeeds well, and this sort of affectation is peculiarly unbecoming, except in old bachelors, for there is a pathetic side to the question so viewed. For my part and my husband's, we may be frank and say that we have caught up our parental pleasures with a sort of passion. But then, Wiedeman is such a darling little creature; who could help loving the child?... Little darling! So much mischief was not often put before into so small a body. Fancy the child's upsetting the water jugs till he is drenched (which charms him), pulling the brooms to pieces, and having serious designs upon cutting up his frocks with a pair of scissors. He laughs like an imp when he can succeed in doing anything wrong. Now, see what you get, in return for your kindness of 'liking to hear about' him! Almost I have the grace to be ashamed a little."

Then more literary news in the same paragraph:

"Just before I had your letter we sent my new edition to England. I gave much time to the revision, and did not omit reforming some of the rhymes, although you must consider that the irregularity of these in a certain degree rather falls in with my system than falls out through my carelessness. So much the worse, you will say, when a person is systematically bad. The work will include the best poems of the 'Seraphim' volume, strengthened and improved as far as the circumstances admitted of. I had not the heart to leave out the wretched sonnet to yourself, for your dear sake; but I rewrote the latter half of it (for really it wasn't a sonnet at all, and 'Una and her lion' are rococo), and so placed it with my other poems of the same class. There are some new, verses also."

These new verses were "Sonnets from the Portugese." Oh, just them. Yawn.

Friday, February 17, 2012

February 17

February 17, 1845 brings Miss Barrett's fourth letter to Browning and she is still introducing herself and trying to draw out the mysteries of the poet and his poetry.

"Dear Mr. Browning,—To begin with the end (which is only characteristic of the perverse like myself), I assure you I read your handwriting as currently as I could read the clearest type from font. If I had practised the art of reading your letters all my life, I couldn't do it better. And then I approve of small MS. upon principle. Think of what an immense quantity of physical energy must go to the making of those immense sweeping handwritings achieved by some persons ... Mr. Landor, for instance, who writes as if he had the sky for a copybook and dotted his i's in proportion. People who do such things should wear gauntlets; yes, and have none to wear; or they wouldn't waste their time so. People who write—by profession—shall I say?—never should do it, or what will become of them when most of their strength retires into their head and heart, (as is the case with some of us and may be the case with all) and when they have to write a poem twelve times over, as Mr. Kenyon says I should do if I were virtuous? Not that I do it. Does anybody do it, I wonder? Do you, ever? From what you tell me of the trimming of the light, I imagine not. And besides, one may be laborious as a writer, without copying twelve times over. I believe there are people who will tell you in a moment what three times six is, without 'doing it' on their fingers; and in the same way one may work one's verses in one's head quite as laboriously as on paper—I maintain it. I consider myself a very patient, laborious writer—though dear Mr. Kenyon laughs me to scorn when I say so.,,

....The deep interest with which I read all that you had the kindness to write to me of yourself, you must trust me for, as I find it hard to express it. It is sympathy in one way, and interest every way! And now, see! Although you proved to me with admirable logic that, for reasons which you know and reasons which you don't know, I couldn't possibly know anything about you; though that is all true—and proven (which is better than true)—I really did understand of you before I was told, exactly what you told me. Yes, I did indeed. I felt sure that as a poet you fronted the future—and that your chief works, in your own apprehension, were to come. Oh—I take no credit of sagacity for it; as I did not long ago to my sisters and brothers, when I professed to have knowledge of all their friends whom I never saw in my life, by the image coming with the name; and threw them into shouts of laughter by giving out all the blue eyes and black eyes and hazel eyes and noses Roman and Gothic ticketed aright for the Mr. Smiths and Miss Hawkinses,—and hit the bull's eye and the true features of the case, ten times out of twelve! But you are different. You are to be made out by the comparative anatomy system. You have thrown out fragments of os ... sublime ... indicative of soul-mammothism—and you live to develop your nature,—if you live. That is easy and plain. You have taken a great range—from those high faint notes of the mystics which are beyond personality ... to dramatic impersonations, gruff with nature, 'gr-r-r- you swine'; and when these are thrown into harmony, as in a manner they are in 'Pippa Passes' (which I could find in my heart to covet the authorship of, more than any of your works—), the combinations of effect must always be striking and noble—and you must feel yourself drawn on to such combinations more and more. But I do not, you say, know yourself—you. I only know abilities and faculties. Well, then, teach me yourself—you. I will not insist on the knowledge—and, in fact, you have not written the R.B. poem yet—your rays fall obliquely rather than directly straight. I see you only in your moon. Do tell me all of yourself that you can and will ... before the R.B. poem comes out. And what is 'Luria'? A poem and not a drama? I mean, a poem not in the dramatic form? Well! I have wondered at you sometimes, not for daring, but for bearing to trust your noble works into the great mill of the 'rank, popular' playhouse, to be ground to pieces between the teeth of vulgar actors and actresses. I, for one, would as soon have 'my soul among lions.' 'There is a fascination in it,' says Miss Mitford, and I am sure there must be, to account for it. Publics in the mass are bad enough; but to distil the dregs of the public and baptise oneself in that acrid moisture, where can be the temptation? I could swear by Shakespeare, as was once sworn 'by those dead at Marathon,' that I do not see where. I love the drama too. I look to our old dramatists as to our Kings and princes in poetry. I love them through all the deeps of their abominations. But the theatre in those days was a better medium between the people and the poet; and the press in those days was a less sufficient medium than now. Still, the poet suffered by the theatre even then; and the reasons are very obvious.
How true—how true ... is all you say about critics. My convictions follow you in every word. And I delighted to read your views of the poet's right aspect towards criticism—I read them with the most complete appreciation and sympathy.,,,,"

I offer a long quote to show what a chatty, charming, opinionated woman she was. What man would not be wooed by the sympathy she expressed, especially a man who was a failure in the eyes of the world? Here Browning saw a woman who 'got' that he was brilliant and could explain to him why she thought so.

But I also offer the long quote to contrast Browning's reaction to Miss Barrett's letter in February 1845 and his reaction to Miss Mitford's letter, which he critiqued in February 1846. (See yesterday's post--don't get behind!)

By February 17, 1846. Miss Barrett has received Browning's letter of critique and I am shocked to report that she was amused by his bratty evisceration of Miss Mitford's letter. You can almost see the twinkle in her eye as she admonishes him:

"Méchant comme quatre! [Wicked as four!] you are, and not deserving to be let see the famous letter—is there any grammar in that concatenation, can you tell me, now that you are in an arch-critical humour?.....What she has sent me might be a chapter in a book and has the life proper to itself, and I shall not let you try it by another standard, even if you wished, but you don't—for I am not so bête [stupid] as not to understand how the jest crosses the serious all the way you write."

But she does take quite a bit of space to defend the letter for what it is:

"And remember (turning back to the subject) that personally she and I are strangers and that therefore what she writes for me is naturally scene-painting to be looked at from a distance, done with a masterly hand and most amiable intention, but quite a different thing of course from the intimate revelations of heart and mind which make a living thing of a letter. If she had sent such to me, I should not have sent it to Mr. Kenyon, but then, she would not have sent it to me in any case."

Saying that she and Miss Mitford were 'strangers' is a bit disingenuous given that she had told Miss Mitford all the details of the death of her brother and her subsequent reaction to it. However, it is understandable that she distances herself from a woman who sees Browning as effeminate, especially in the face of his contempt. Having said that, the real point is that Miss Mitford had not written a personal letter, but rather a scene from life that she knew would be shared with other persons.
And she, perhaps self-consciously, defends all letters. For a person who is not in society gossipy letters from noted and not so noted literary figures were a real boon:

"So again for the letters. Now ought I not to know about letters, I who have had so many ... from chief minds too, as society goes in England and America? And your letters began by being first to my intellect, before they were first to my heart. All the letters in the world are not like yours ... and I would trust them for that verdict with any jury in Europe, if they were not so far too dear! Mr. Kenyon wanted to make me show him your letters—I did show him the first, and resisted gallantly afterwards, which made him say what vexed me at the moment, ... 'oh—you let me see only women's letters,'—till I observed that it was a breach of confidence, except in some cases, ... and that I should complain very much, if anyone, man or woman, acted so by myself. But nobody in the world writes like you—not so vitally—and I have a right, if you please, to praise my letters, besides the reason of it which is as good."

And she ends with:

"And I am delighted to hear from you to-day just so, though I reproach you in turn just so ... because you were not 'depressed' in writing all this and this and this which has made me laugh."

She wrote letters to Miss Mitford. She wrote sonnets to Browning. ...Just sayin'.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February 16

There were three letters from our poets posted on February 16, 1846. Browning had paid a visit on Saturday and as was normal they continued their conversation in the letters. Often it seems that they cannot speak the words they are thinking face to face and use the safety of the letters to speak the unspoken truths of their hearts and heads. This was especially true with Miss Barrett who seems frightened of verbal confrontation of any kind. A kind of embarrased shyness that permitted her to express certain ideas only on paper. This form of communication lead to even more anxiety as both would send letters and then be filled with dread that what they have written will 'vex' the other party. This post-epistle anxiety on the part of Browning probably brought on the third letter on this day.

We first hear from Miss Barrett who immediately writes what she could not say:

"Ever dearest, though you wanted to make me say one thing displeasing to you to-day, I had not courage to say two instead ... which I might have done indeed and indeed! For I am capable of thinking both thoughts of 'next year,' as you suggested them:—because while you are with me I see only you, and you being you, I cannot doubt a power of yours nor measure the deep loving nature which I feel to be so deep—so that there may be ever so many 'mores,' and no 'more' wonder of mine!—but afterwards, when the door is shut and there is no 'more' light nor speaking until Thursday, why then, that I do not see you but me,—then comes the reaction,—the natural lengthening of the shadows at sunset,—and then, the 'less, less, less' grows to seem as natural to my fate, as the 'more' seemed to your nature—I being I!"

I love this next paragraph. She will not give up making sure that he has a way out. She still does not trust that he is not just infatuated:

"Then I will confess to you that all my life long I have had a rather strange sympathy and dyspathy—the sympathy having concerned the genus jilt (as vulgarly called) male and female—and the dyspathy—the whole class of heroically virtuous persons who make sacrifices of what they call 'love' to what they call 'duty.' There are exceptional cases of course, but, for the most part, I listen incredulously or else with a little contempt to those latter proofs of strength—or weakness, as it may be:—people are not usually praised for giving up their religion, for unsaying their oaths, for desecrating their 'holy things'—while believing them still to be religious and sacramental! On the other side I have always and shall always understand how it is possible for the most earnest and faithful of men and even of women perhaps, to err in the convictions of the heart as well as of the mind, to profess an affection which is an illusion, and to recant and retreat loyally at the eleventh hour, on becoming aware of the truth which is in them. Such men are the truest of men, and the most courageous for the truth's sake, and instead of blaming them I hold them in honour, for me, and always did and shall."

But in Browning's first letter of the day he is not thinking of Miss Barrett at all, it seems. He, to use a modern colloquialism, goes off on Miss Mitford. Miss Barrett has provided one of Miss Mitford's letters to Browning to read and to say the least, he has nothing but contempt for Miss Mitford and for her letter. (It must be said that Miss Mitford did not care for Browning or his poetry, of which he was aware.) She had written of her life in the country and her interaction with Wordsworth. Browning held forth for several long paragraphs dissecting her letter. I will offer just a taste of his disgust:

"I respect Miss M. just as I should an Archbishop of Canterbury whose business was the teaching A.B.C. at an infant-school—he who might set on the Tens to instruct the Hundreds how to convince the Thousands of the propriety of doing that and many other things. Of course one will respect him only the more if when that matter is off his mind he relaxes at such a school instead of over a chess-board; as it will increase our love for Miss M. to find that making 'my good Jane (from Tyne-mouth)'—'happier and—I hope—wiser' is an amusement, or more, after the day's progress towards the 'novel for next year' which is to inspire thousands, beyond computation, with the ardour of making innumerable other Janes and delicate relatives happier and wiser—who knows but as many as Burns did, and does, so make happier and wiser? Only, his quarry and after-solace was that 'marble bowl often replenished with whiskey' on which Dr. Curry discourses mournfully, 'Oh, be wiser Thou!'—and remember it was only after Lord Bacon had written to an end his Book—given us for ever the Art of Inventing—whether steam-engine or improved dust-pan—that he took on himself to do a little exemplary 'hand work'; got out on that cold St. Alban's road to stuff a fowl with snow and so keep it fresh, and got into his bed and died of the cold in his hands ('strenuous hand work'—) before the snow had time to melt. He did not begin in his youth by saying—'I have a horror of merely writing 'Novum Organums' and shall give half my energies to the stuffing fowls'! "

This is just a tiny portion of his rambling discourse on the subject of Miss. M. Oh dear. Hmm. Yes, well, he feels this way about all his critics.

And then, at the end of this very long letter he has one little, tiny paragraph for Miss Barrett:

"Oh, my own Ba, hear my plain speech—and how this is not an attempt to frighten you out of your dear wish to 'hear from me'—no, indeed—but a whim, a caprice,—and now it is out! over, done with! And now I am with you again—it is to you I shall write next. Bless you, ever—my beloved. I am much better, indeed—and mean to be well. And you! But I will write—this goes for nothing—or only this, that I am your very own— "

Yes, our poet had a temper. Boy howdy. Thank goodness that he did not vent his diatribe in her presence in one deep and sarcastic breath. Some vents are much better on paper. And as soon as he sent it he thought better of it and sent off another letter:

"My long letter is with you, dearest, to show how serious my illness was 'while you wrote': unless you find that letter too foolish, as I do on twice thinking—or at all events a most superfluous bestowment of handwork while the heart was elsewhere, and with you—never more so! Dear, dear Ba, your adorable goodness sinks into me till it nearly pains,—so exquisite and strange is the pleasure: so you care for me, and think of me, and write to me!—I shall never die for you, and if it could be so, what would death prove? But I can live on, your own as now,—utterly your own......I shut up books (that is, of my own) and mean to think about nothing but you, and you, and still you, for a whole week—so all will come right, I hope!"

Yes, she will forgive him. Her 'adorable goodness' is 'exquisite and strange'? Come on, how could she not? But I am counting on her to deliver a verbal smack for his impertinence!

(You can read Miss Mitford's letter in "The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett 1845-1846" edited by Elvin Kintner and published in 1969. Check your library, or if you are feeling flush (dog pun!), watch for it on eBay. You can pick up the two volume set for around $125.00. The footnotes are worth the price of the book. Kintner says that he included Miss Mitford's letter because our pair discuss it on and off through the course of several letters.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

February 15

The Barrett Browning letter of February 15, 1852 is remarkable. But first some background. In 1838 Miss Barrett had been sent to Torquay, on the coast, for her health. She was 32 years old. She was accompanied by at least one of her sisters and her eldest and closest brother, Edward, who all called Bro. She was attached to Bro in a way we perhaps do not know or understand. I am not aware of any extant primary record of interaction between them but subsequent events show that she was deeply involved with him. After a time, being the eldest son, his father sent for him to return to London. Miss Barrett appealed to her father to allow Bro to stay, which he was permitted to do although Mr. Barrett let it be known that he was not happy about it. On a summer day in 1840 Bro went out in a small boat with several male friends and never returned. Their bodies were found up the coast several days later. Miss Barrett had an emotional reaction to this death that we would probably consider clinical depression. Her guilt over his death was tied to the fact that she had insisted that he stay with her rather than return to London as their father had wanted. Her description of her reaction when she wrote to Mary Russell Mitford about it was, "That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness". Based on her own description she was not able to physically function. She was ultimately brought home to London in a private carriage.

This event in her life, we will find, had a decided effect on her relationship with Browning. But today we will see the effect it had on her relationship with Miss Mitford, her long term literary correspondent and friend. For Miss Mitford has written and published a biographical sketch of the poetess that has revealed the darkest secret and perhaps greatest shame of her life. From Paris, Mrs. Browning has written to admonish her friend:

"My very dear friend, let me begin what I have to say by recognising you as the most generous and affectionate of friends. I never could mistake the least of your intentions; you were always, from first to last, kind and tenderly indulgent to me—always exaggerating what was good in me, always forgetting what was faulty and weak—keeping me by force of affection in a higher place than I could aspire to by force of vanity; loving me always, in fact. Now let me tell you the truth. It will prove how hard it is for the tenderest friends to help paining one another, since you have pained me. See what a deep wound I must have in me, to be pained by the touch of such a hand. Oh, I am morbid, I very well know. But the truth is that I have been miserably upset by your book, and that if I had had the least imagination of your intending to touch upon certain biographical details in relation to me, I would have conjured you by your love to me and by my love to you, to forbear it altogether. You cannot understand; no, you cannot understand with all your wide sympathy (perhaps, because you are not morbid, and I am), the sort of susceptibility I have upon one subject. I have lived heart to heart (for instance) with my husband these five years: I have never yet spoken out, in a whisper even, what is in me; never yet could find heart or breath; never yet could bear to hear a word of reference from his lips. And now those dreadful words are going the round of the newspapers, to be verified here, commented on there, gossiped about everywhere; and I, for my part, am frightened to look at a paper as a child in the dark—as unreasonably, you will say—but what then? what drives us mad is our unreason."

"....Robert set about procuring the 'Athenæum' in question. He tells me (and that I perfectly believe) that, for the facts to be given at all, they could not possibly be given with greater delicacy; oh, and I will add for myself, that for them to be related by anyone during my life, I would rather have you to relate them than another. But why should they be related during my life? There was no need, no need. To show my nervous susceptibility in the length and breadth of it to you, I could not (when it came to the point) bear to read the passage extracted in the 'Athenæum,' notwithstanding my natural anxiety to see exactly what was done. I could not bear to do it. I made Robert read it aloud—with omissions—so that I know all your kindness. I feel it deeply; through tears of pain I feel it; and if, as I dare say you will, you think me very very foolish, do not on that account think me ungrateful. Ungrateful I never can be to you, my much loved and kindest friend."

"...Yes; I do understand in my heart all your kindness. Yes, I do believe that on some points I am full of disease; and this has exposed me several times to shocks of pain in the ordinary intercourse of the world, which for bystanders were hard, I dare say, to make out. Once at the Baths of Lucca I was literally nearly struck down to the ground by a single word said in all kindness by a friend whom I had not seen for ten years. The blue sky reeled over me, and I caught at something, not to fall. Well, there is no use dwelling on this subject. I understand your affectionateness and tender consideration, I repeat, and thank you; and love you, which is better. Now, let us talk of reasonable things."

Such an extraordinary letter. She obviously feels betrayed and yet she does not want to hurt or lose her friend. As is usual for her she takes all the blame on herself. She is the 'morbid' one, she is the one who is 'full of desease'. Another woman would have cut Miss Mitford and ended the friendship for such a betrayal. Perhaps Mrs. Browning did over react, but her letter of reproach was remarkable for it's tenderness, as she apologized for being hurt.

As if to prove that their relationship would go on as before Mrs. Browning ends the letter with exciting news. She was going to meet George Sand!

"Meanwhile, we have at last sent our letter (Mazzini's) to George Sand, accompanied with a little note signed by both of us, though written by me, as seemed right, being the woman. We half despaired in doing this, for it is most difficult, it appears, to get at her, she having taken vows against seeing strangers in consequence of various annoyances and persecutions in and out of print, which it's the mere instinct of a woman to avoid. I can understand it perfectly. Also, she is in Paris for only a few days, and under a new name, to escape from the plague of her notoriety. People said to us: 'She will never see you; you have no chance, I am afraid.' But we determined to try. At last I pricked Robert up to the leap, for he was really inclined to sit in his chair and be proud a little. 'No,' said I, 'you shan't be proud, and I won't be proud, and we will see her. I won't die, if I can help it, without seeing George Sand.' So we gave our letter to a friend who was to give it to a friend, who was to place it in her hands, her abode being a mystery and the name she used unknown.....And we are going to-morrow; I, rather at the risk of my life. But I shall roll myself up head and all in a thick shawl, and we shall go in a close carriage...."

Mrs. Browning was excited! She was going to see her hero! And she shared it with an old friend who had hurt her to the core.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

February 14

To buck the trend this Valentines Day we will not dabble in a love soaked letter from our poetic pair, because there is no letter twixt the two on February 14 in 1845 or 1846. Rather, we will turn to a letter simply dated February 1857. Mrs. Browning has published her verse-novel 'Aurora Leigh' and has scandalized part of the English speaking world, heartened part of the English speaking world and continued to be ignored by 99% of the English speaking world. The saintly Mrs. Browning had created shocking, free-living women characters, who attempt to make their own way in the world. This development has given feminists a subject for their doctoral thesis's for the past 50 years! But in 1857 she has created a disturbance in the mind of her old friend Mrs. Martin:

"In respect to certain objections, I am quite sure you do me the justice to believe that I do not willingly give cause for offence. Without going as far as Robert, who holds that I 'couldn't be coarse if I tried,' (only that!) you will grant that I don't habitually dabble in the dirt; it's not the way of my mind or life. If, therefore, I move certain subjects in this work, it is because my conscience was first moved in me not to ignore them. What has given most offence in the book, more than the story of Marian—far more!—has been the reference to the condition of women in our cities, which a woman oughtn't to refer to, by any manner of means, says the conventional tradition. Now I have thought deeply otherwise. If a woman ignores these wrongs, then may women as a sex continue to suffer them; there is no help for any of us—let us be dumb and die. I have spoken therefore, and in speaking have used plain words—words which look like blots, and which you yourself would put away—words which, if blurred or softened, would imperil perhaps the force and righteousness of the moral influence. Still, I certainly will, when the time comes, go over the poem carefully, and see where an offence can be got rid of without loss otherwise."

This last sentence is wonderful, coming at the end of a righteous defence of plain speaking. She continues her defence by blaming Browning for not permitting her to change anything! At least not yet:

"The second edition was issued so early that Robert would not let me alter even a comma, would not let me look between the pages in order to the least alteration. He said (the truth) that my head was dizzy-blind with the book, and that, if I changed anything, it would be probably for the worse; like arranging a room in the dark. Oh no. Indeed he is not vexed that you should say what you do. On the contrary, he was pleased because of the much more that you said. As to your friend with the susceptible 'morals'—well, I could not help smiling indeed. I am assured too, by a friend of my own, that the 'mamas of England' in a body refuse to let their daughters read it. Still, the daughters emancipate themselves and do, that is certain; for the number of young women, not merely 'the strong-minded' as a sect, but pretty, affluent, happy women, surrounded by all the temptations of English respectability, that cover it with the most extravagant praises is surprising to me, who was not prepared for that particular kind of welcome. It's true that there's a quantity of hate to balance the love, only I think it chiefly seems to come from the less advanced part of society. (See how modest that sounds! But you will know what I mean.) I mean, from persons whose opinions are not in a state of growth, and who do not like to be disturbed from a settled position. Oh, that there are faults in the book, no human being knows so well as I; defects, weaknesses, great gaps of intelligence. Don't let me stop to recount them."

What a wonderful analysis of her own book and the reception it was receiving. Continuing in a typical self-deprecating manner she ends the letter with:

"I would show you what George sent me the other day, a number of the 'National Magazine,' with the most hideous engraving, from a medallion, you could imagine—the head of a 'strong-minded' giantess on the neck of a bull, and my name underneath! Penini said, 'It's not a bit like; it's too old, and not half so pretty'—which was comforting under the trying circumstance, if anything could comfort one in despair...."

Browning had obviously trained their child in his own particular school of Browning charm.

Monday, February 13, 2012

February 13

A trip to the future: February 13, 1855 finds Mrs. Browning writing to Mrs. Martin, her childhood neighbor, from Casa Guidi, her home in Florence. Britain is involved in the Crimea and word is reaching them of death and politics.

"Oh, the East, the East! My husband has been almost frantic on the subject. We may all cover our heads and be humble. Verily we have sinned deeply. As to ministers, that there is blame I do not doubt. The Aberdeen element has done its worst, but our misfortune is that nobody is responsible; and that if you tear up Mr. So-and-so and Lord So-and-so limb from limb, as a mild politician recommended the other day, you probably would do a gross injustice against very well-meaning persons. It's the system, the system which is all one gangrene; the most corrupt system in Europe, is it not? Here is my comfort. Apart from the dreadful amount of individual suffering which cries out against us to heaven and earth, this adversity may teach us much, this shock which has struck to the heart of England may awaken us much, and this humiliation will altogether be good for us. We have stood too long on a pedestal talking of our moral superiority, our political superiority, and all our other superiorities, which I have long been sick of hearing recounted. Here's an inferiority proved. Let us understand it and remedy it, and not talk, talk, any more."

But Mrs. Martin has sent a present of a shawl to Mrs. Browning via a friend who was visiting Florence. In the 19th century your letters could be sent safely all over Europe via the postal services, but they did not convey packages. If you needed to send your packet of manuscripts from Italy to England you had to have a friend take it for you, pay a special courier or take it yourself. I imagine the man who delivered this package for Mrs. Martin was hoping for a glimpse of the famous poets, but it doesn't sound like he got the pleasure. He probably had to leave it with the man servant or maid. How disappointing!

"But I have been very unwell, and was actually in bed when he called; unwell with the worst attack on the chest I ever suffered from in Italy. Oh, I should have written to you long since if it had not been for this. For a month past or more I have been ill. Now, indeed, I consider myself convalescent; the exhausting cough and night fever are gone, I may say, the pulse quiet, and, though considerably weakened and pulled down, that will be gradually remedied as long as this genial mildness of the weather lasts. You were quite right in supposing us struck here by the cold of which you complained even at Pau. Not only here but at Pisa there has been snow and frost, together with a bitter wind which my precaution of keeping steadily to two rooms opening one into another could not defend me from. My poor Robert has been horribly vexed about me, of course, and indeed suffered physically at one time through sleepless nights, diversified by such pastimes as keeping fires alight and warming coffee, &c. &c. Except for love's sake it wouldn't be worth while to live on at the expense of doing so much harm, but you needn't exhort—I don't give it up. I mean to live on and be well."

This last is spoken as one who suffers just to breath. But she doesn't suggest giving up because she suffers, but because she is a burden to Browning. She worried about this ten years earlier when they were courting. She didn't want to be a burden to him in her health, which of course she was. We will return to this later as her health continues to weaken and she becomes almost as shut in as she was in Wimpole Street. With a difference of course, but still she must have felt such a burden. He can't say she didn't warn him.