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
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
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'.