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...

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