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.)

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