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.

1 comment:

  1. Miss Mitford has offended her before yet Ba continued to be a friend.