March 20, 1845 brings one of my favorite letters from Miss Barrett. This is her seventh letter to Browning and she is still trying to explain to him what she wants from him and herself:
"You are Paracelsus, and I am a recluse, with nerves that have been all
broken on the rack, and now hang loosely—quivering at a step and breath...You seem to have drunken of the cup of life full, with the sun shining on it. I
have lived only inwardly; or with sorrow, for a strong emotion. Before
this seclusion of my illness, I was secluded still, and there are few of the
youngest women in the world who have not seen more, heard more, known more, of
society, than I, who am scarcely to be called young now. I grew up in the
country—had no social opportunities, had my heart in books and poetry, and my
experience in reveries. My sympathies drooped towards the ground like an
untrained honeysuckle—and but for one, in my own house—but of this I
cannot speak. It was a lonely life, growing green like the grass around it.
Books and dreams were what I lived in—and domestic life only seemed to buzz
gently around, like the bees about the grass. And so time passed, and passed—and
afterwards, when my illness came and I seemed to stand at the edge of the world
with all done, and no prospect (as appeared at one time) of ever passing the
threshold of one room again; why then, I turned to thinking with some bitterness
(after the greatest sorrow of my life had given me room and time to breathe)
that I had stood blind in this temple I was about to leave—that I had seen no
Human nature, that my brothers and sisters of the earth were names to me,
that I had beheld no great mountain or river, nothing in fact. I was as a man
dying who had not read Shakespeare, and it was too late! do you understand? And
do you also know what a disadvantage this ignorance is to my art? Why, if I live
on and yet do not escape from this seclusion, do you not perceive that I labour
under signal disadvantages—that I am, in a manner, as a blind poet?
Certainly, there is a compensation to a degree. I have had much of the inner
life, and from the habit of self-consciousness and self-analysis, I make great
guesses at Human nature in the main. But how willingly I would as a poet
exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous, helpless knowledge of books, for
some experience of life and man, for some..."
She wanted to make contact with the world, to get out and DO something, to learn something. She was bored and obviously recognized it. Like Sherlock Holmes turning to cocaine when he didn't have a case, she turned within herself and wrote poetry to fight the depression.
"...I have lived all my chief joys, and indeed nearly all emotions that go
warmly by that name and relate to myself personally, in poetry and in poetry
alone. Like to write? Of course, of course I do. I seem to live while I write—it
is life, for me. Why, what is to live? Not to eat and drink and breathe,—but to
feel the life in you down all the fibres of being, passionately and joyfully...
How delightful to talk about oneself; but as you 'tempted me and I did eat,'
I entreat your longsuffering of my sin, and ah! if you would but sin back so in
turn! You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony ... as in the 'si no,
si no' of an Italian duet. I want to see more of men, and you have seen too
much, you say. I am in ignorance, and you, in satiety. 'You don't even care
about reading now.' Is it possible? And I am as 'fresh' about reading, as ever I
was—as long as I keep out of the shadow of the dictionaries and of theological
controversies, and the like. Shall I whisper it to you under the memory of the
last rose of last summer? I am very fond of romances; yes! and I read
them not only as some wise people are known to do, for the sake of the eloquence
here and the sentiment there, and the graphic intermixtures here and there, but
for the story! just as little children would, sitting on their papa's knee. My
childish love of a story never wore out with my love of plum cake, and now there
is not a hole in it. I make it a rule, for the most part, to read all the
romances that other people are kind enough to write—and woe to the miserable
wight who tells me how the third volume endeth. Have you in you any surviving
innocence of this sort? or do you call it idiocy? If you do, I will forgive you,
only smiling to myself—I give you notice,—with a smile of superior pleasure!
Ah! you tempt me with a grand vision of Prometheus! I, who have just
escaped with my life, after treading Milton's ground, you would send me to
Æschylus's. No, I do not dare. And besides ... I am inclined to think
that we want new forms, as well as thoughts. The old gods are dethroned.
Why should we go back to the antique moulds, classical moulds, as they are so
improperly called? If it is a necessity of Art to do so, why then those critics
are right who hold that Art is exhausted and the world too worn out for poetry.
I do not, for my part, believe this: and I believe the so-called necessity of
Art to be the mere feebleness of the artist. Let us all aspire rather to
Life, and let the dead bury their dead. If we have but courage to face
these conventions, to touch this low ground, we shall take strength from it
instead of losing it; and of that, I am intimately persuaded. For there is
poetry everywhere; the 'treasure' (see the old fable) lies all over the
field. And then Christianity is a worthy myth, and poetically acceptable."
I am so tempted to quote the entire letter, but I won't. Go and read it here. To find this letter do Ctrl + F and type March 20, 1845 into the box and press enter.
The wonderful thing about this letter is that it is true. Her philosophy of growth lives with her until the end of her life. She is steeped in the art of the Greek poets but moves forward to create new forms of poetry for the 19th Century. She is true to the vision she sets out to Browning in 1845: Learn, grow, try new things, fail, move forward.
The her letter of March 20, 1846 touches briefly on her art as well, using a letter praising her work to praise Browning instead:
"The writer doesn't see anything 'in Browning and Turner,' she
confesses—'may perhaps with time and study,' but for the present sees
nothing,—only has wide-open eyes of admiration for E.B.B. ... now isn't it
satisfactory to me? Do you understand the full satisfaction of just that
sort of thing ... to be praised by somebody who sees nothing in Shakespeare?—to
be found on the level of somebody so flat?"
And then she explains the risks he runs in choosing her:
"Will you be pleased to understand in the meanwhile a little about the 'risks'
I am supposed to run, and not hold to such a godlike simplicity ('gods and
bulls,' dearest!) as you made show of yesterday? If we two went to the
gaming-table, and you gave me a purse of gold to play with, should I have a
right to talk proudly of 'my stakes?' and would any reasonable person say of
both of us playing together as partners, that we ran 'equal risks'? I trow
not—and so do you ... when you have not predetermined to be stupid, and
mix up the rouge and noir into 'one red' of glorious confusion. What had I to
lose on the point of happiness when you knew me first?—and if now I lose (as I
certainly may according to your calculation) the happiness you have given me,
why still I am your debtor for the gift ... now see! Yet to bring you
down into my ashes ... that has been so intolerable a possibility to me
from the first. Well, perhaps I run more risk than you, under that one
aspect. Certainly I never should forgive myself again if you were unhappy. 'What
had I to do,' I should think, 'with touching your life?' And if ever I am
to think so, I would rather that I never had known you, seen your face, heard
your voice—which is the uttermost sacrifice and abnegation. I could not say or
sacrifice any more—not even for you! You, for you ... is
all I can!"
She can only win and he can only lose. She is so mixed up. She sees no worth in herself, but she sees Browning as Shakespeare. This girl deserves some love. I almost want to slap her and say, "Snap out of it! Let him love you for pity's sake! Give yourself a bit of credit!" But perhaps this comes of the secret nature of their relationship. She had no one to discuss this with at all. There was no friend to say, "Ba, you are worthy, enjoy what life offers you."
This letter ends with an interesting postscript. Edgar Allen Poe has dedicated his latest book of poems to EBB:
"Mr. Poe has sent me his poems and tales—so now I must write to thank him for his
dedication. Just now I have the book."
Browning hasn't dedicated anything to her. Does he have competition?