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.



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