Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29

Miss Barrett sent Browning a letter describing her meeting with a Miss Bailey:

"At two, Miss Bailey came & sate for two hours, & thought me looking so well....She doffed her bonnet & talked & talked, & was agreeable & affectionate, & means to come constantly to see me...(only not on thursday, I desired:) and do you know, you need not think any more of my going with you to Italy, for she has made up her mind to take me herself...there is no escape that I can see..it's fixed..certain!--with a thousand generous benignities she stifled my 'no's'..& all I had breath to say at last, was, that 'there was time enough for plans of that kind' Seriously, I was quite embarrassed to know how to adjourn the debate. And she is capable of 'arranging everything'--of persisting, of insisting..who knows what? And so,..when I am 'withdrawn'..carried away,..then, shall all my 'feelings,' which are in you, be given to someone else? it that the way...

Now I shall not make jests upon that..I shall not: first I shall not because it is ungrateful--& next & principally, because my heart stands still to think of it..!"

Oh, the girl does love to 'teaze' her boy...

Browning took a feigning fright at this:

"...Meanwhile I will tell you what a dear, merciful Ba you are, in only threatening me with daggers--, when you play at threatening, instead of declaring that you will frown at me...Oh, but here 'Fear recoils, he knows well why, even at the sound himself has made'--
The best of it is, that this was the second fright, and by no means the most formidable. When I read that paragraph beginning 'you need not think any more of going with me to Italy' shall I only say I was alarmed? Without a particle of affectation, I tell Ba, I am, cannot help being, alarmed even now--we have been discussing possibilities--and it is rather more possible & probable that Miss Bailey may 'carry off' my Ba, and her Flush, and, say, and odd volume of the Cyclic Poets, all in her pocket..she being, if I remember, of the race of Anakim--than that I shall ever find in the wide world a flesh & blood woman able to bear the weight of the 'feelings,' I rest now upon the B and the A which spells Ba's name, only her name!"

Miss Bailey must have been a mighty woman who could carry Miss Barrett and her dog in her pocket. Rather a fanciful idea, rather like Alice in Wonderland after she hit the 'Drink Me' bottle.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

April 28

April 28 1843 Miss Barrett sends a long letter to an American magazine publisher, Cornelius Matthews, on a myriad of subjects:

"My dear Mr. Mathews,—In replying to your kind letter I send some more verse for Graham's, praying such demi-semi-gods as preside over contributors to magazines that I may not appear over-loquacious to my editor. Of course it is not intended to thrust three or four poems into one number. My pluralities go to you simply to 'bide your time,' and be used one by one as the opportunity is presented. In the meanwhile you have received, I hope, a short letter written to explain my unwillingness to apply, as you desired me at first, to Wiley and Putnam—an unwillingness justified by what you told me afterwards. I did not apply, nor have I applied, and I would rather not apply at all. Perhaps I shall hear from them presently. The pamphlet on International Copyright is welcome at a distance, but it has not come near me yet; and for all your kindness in relation to the prospective gift of your works I thank you again and earnestly. You are kind to me in many ways, and I would willingly know as much of your intellectual habits as you teach me of your genial feelings. This 'Pathfinder' (what an excellent name for an American journal!) I also owe to you, with the summing up of your performances in it, and with a notice of Mr. Browning's 'Blot on the Scutcheon,' which would make one poet furious (the 'infelix Talfourd') and another a little melancholy—namely, Mr. Browning himself. There is truth on both sides, but it seems to me hard truth on Browning. I do assure you I never saw him in my life—do not know him even by correspondence—and yet, whether through fellow-feeling for Eleusinian mysteries, or whether through the more generous motive of appreciation of his powers, I am very sensitive to the thousand and one stripes with which the assembly of critics doth expound its vocation over him, and the 'Athenaeum,' for instance, made me quite cross and misanthropical last week. The truth is—and the world should know the truth—it is easier to find a more faultless writer than a poet of equal genius. Don't let us fall into the category of the sons of Noah. Noah was once drunk, indeed, but once he built the ark.

In regard to critical papers of mine, I would willingly give myself up to you, seeing your good nature; but it is the truth that I never published any prose papers at all except the series on the Greek Christian poets and the other series on the English poets in the 'Athenaeum' of last year, and both of which you have probably seen. Afterwards I threw up my brief and went back to my poetry, in which I feel that I must do whatever I am equal to doing at all. That life is short and art long appears to us more true than usual when we lie all day long on a sofa and are as frightened of the east wind as if it were a tiger. Life is not only short, but uncertain, and art is not only long, but absorbing. What have I to do with writing 'scandal' (as Mr. Jones would say) upon my neighbour's work, when I have not finished my own? So I threw up my brief into Mr. Dilke's [publisher of the Athenaeum] hands, and went back to my verses. Whenever I print another volume you shall have it, if Messrs. Wiley and Putnam will convey it to you...

And so, you made merry with my scorn of my 'Prometheus.' Believe me—believe me absolutely—I did not strike that others might spare, but from an earnest remorse. When you know me better, you will know, I hope, that I am true, whether right or wrong, and you know already that I am right in this thing, the only merit of the translation being its closeness. Can I be of any use to you, dear Mr. Mathews? When I can, make use of me. You surprise and disappoint me in your sketch of the Boston poet, for the letter he wrote to me struck me as frank and honest. I wonder if he made any use of the verses I sent him; and I wonder what I sent him—for I never made a note of it, through negligence, and have quite forgotten."

What a great letter. I find this letter fascinating because it shows her as a business woman, writing as an equal to a man, proffering her poems for sale, offering to be of help to the publisher, explaining her point of view on poetry and poets, her dislike of reviewing other writers and explaining her disdain for her own translation of 'Prometheus', etc. Of course her defense of Browning, two years prior to their first letter, shows that she was totally immersed in the contemporary poetry scene. This is but an excerpt of the letter, she also discusses the merits of the English penny post and the relative merit of international copyright laws, which were practically non existent at this time. Go here to read the whole letter.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

April 27

Browning continues the conversation about the relative merits of English and French novels on April 27, 1846:

"I entirely agree with you in your estimate of the comparative value of French & English  Romance-writers. I bade the completest adieu to the latter on my first introduction to Balzac, whom I greatly admire for his faculty, whatever he may choose to do with it. Do you know a little sketch 'La Messe de l' Athee,'--most affecting to me. And for you, with you love of a 'story,' what an unceasing delight must be that very ingenious way of his, by which he connects the new novel with its predecessor--keeps telling you more and more news yet of people you have got interested in, but seem to have done with....Did you notice a stanza quoted from some lachrymose rhymester  to be laughed at--in which the writer complains of the ill treatment of false friends, 'for' says he, 'I have felt their bangs'--The notion of one's friends 'banging' one is exhilarating when one reflects that he might get a little pin, and prick, prick after this fashion--,No, it is probably a manner of writing,--meant for the week's life and the dozen readers."

Miss Barrett has, in the mean time, been reading the review of Browning's poetry in the Examiner:

"Very good Examiner!--I am pleased with it & with Mr. Forster for the nonce, though he doesn't talk at all, scarcely, of the Souls Tragedy...how is one to bear it? That Tragedy has wonderful things in it--thoughts, suggestions, ...and more & more I feel, that you never did better dialogue than in the first part--Every pulse of it is alive & individual--dramatic dialogue of the best. Nobody in the world could write such dialogue--now you know, you must be patient & 'meke as maid,' being in the course of the fortynine days of enduring praises. Praises, instead of 'bangs'!!--consider that it might be worse!--dicit ipsissima Ba. [Says Ba's very own self.]"

I love the fact that she recognizes that she is praising him and jokes about the supposed forty nine days that she praises him and throws in a 'bang' to finish the jest. But next she turns to his cogitation the previous day on all the women who might love him:

"Why did you say that to me? I could be as jealous (did I not tell you once?) as any one of your melodramatic gitana heroines, who carries a poignard [dagger or dirk] between the white-satin sash & the spangles? I perfectly understand, at this distance, what jealousy is, would be, ought to be, must be--though I never guessed at all what love was, at that distance...& startled I am often & confounded, to see the impotency of my imagination."

It is interesting that she can understand jealousy and the emotion that could drive someone to stab their lover, but she acknowledges that she had no concept of love. So, now that she is in the midst of a passionate love, can you imagine her actually stabbing Browning because his eye wandered? If Browning betrayed her with another woman she would surely accept it as her lot; that she had been right: he had an obsession and that it had ended because she was wormwood. Yes, she might be jealous. She could understand it in the abstract, but for a woman so opposed to dueling to stab her lover or his inamorata is nothing but a flight of fancy from one of her naughty French novels. But intriguing to see her considering the idea. She does love to tease, but perhaps Browning should fear her mighty dirk!

April 26

On April 26, 1846 Miss Barrett writes a very chatty letter to Browning discussing mostly literary items, specifically French novels, one of Miss Barrett's favorite subjects:

"...You know I like listening to stories--I agree with the great Sultan & would forgo ever so much cutting off of heads for the sake of a story--it is a taste quite apart from a taste for literature: a storyteller, I like, apart from the sweet voice. Now that book of Duma's on the League wars, which distressed me so the other day, by having the cruelty..the 'villaine'..of hanging its hero in the fourth volume...(regularly hanging him on a pair of gallows---wasn't it too bad?..) that book is amusing enough, more than amusing enough, to take with one's coffee..which is my fashion,..because you are not here & I have nobody to talk to me. The hero who was hanged, deserved it a little, I think, though the author meant it for pure misfortune & though no good romance-reader in the world, such as I am, could bear to part with the hero of four volumes in that manner, without pain,--but the hero did deserve it a little when one came to consider. In the first place, he was a traitor once or twice in war and politics, & was quite ready to be so a third or fourth time,..only..as he said to the lady he loved...'je perdrais votre estime. [I would lose your esteem.]' 'Is that you only objection' she enquired. 'The only one' he answered! (How frightfully true, that those brilliant French writers have no moral sense at all! do not, for the most part, know right from wrong! here, an instance!) Then from the beginning to the end of the four volumes, he loves two women together...a 'phenomene' by no means uncommon, says the historian musingly,..& except for the hanging, there might have been a difficulty perhaps in the final arrangement. Yet, oh..to see one's hero, the hero of four volumes, & not a bad hero either in some respects, hung up before one's eyes!..it wrongs the natural affections to think of it!--it made me unhappy for a full hour!--There should be a society for the prevention of cruelty to romance-readers against the recurrence of such things!--Pure nonsense I write to you, it seems to me."

You have to love her enthusiasm for these torrid French novels. She has no problem confessing her love of these books to Browning, who might be a literary snob for all we know. In letters she sends to other literary lights she feels them out first, asking their opinion first to see whether their tolerance for naughty books is a strong as hers. She apparently has no such compunction with Browning.

And Browning is in a nonsense mood as well, taking one of his convoluted rides around his brain trying to explain how he could never love these other women who might love him:

"In your last letter you spoke of 'other women.' and said they 'might' love me--just see! They might love me because of something in me, lovingness in me, which they never could have evoked..so the effect produces the cause, my dear 'inverter!' If there had been a vague aimless feeling in me, turning hither and thither for some object to attach itself to and spend itself on, and you had chanced to be that object..I should understand you were a vary little flattered and how a poplar does as well for a vine-prop as a palm tree--but whatever love of mine clings to you was created by you, dearest,--they were not in me, I believed--those feelings,--till you came: so that, mournful & degrading as it sounds, still it would, I think, be more rational to confess the possibility of their living on, tho' you withdrew,--finding some other--oh no, it is,--that is as great an impossibility as the other,--they came from you, they go to you--what is the world to them!"

What? Is this an example of a passage that only God and Browning can understand? I guess that he is trying to say that even if other women did love him he would not respond because what he responded to was Miss Barrett. Or some such. And then he flounders around. Yes, a lot of his poetry is like this too. A lot of words as he tries out all the ideas in his head. But you have to like him, he's such a nice guy. (Although I wouldn't want him vexed with me!)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April 25

Today being April 25 I will dispense with our normal Barrett Browning letter and celebrate the birth of my Wonderful and Brave sister, Bronwen.

Bronwen is very un-Ba like in that she took the bull by the horns and wrestled him to the ground and kicked him in the butt. She did not wait for permission of dear Papa or MaMa. She did not need Perseus to save her. Her Andromeda slew the dragon and freed herself.
But she is Ba like in her intelligence, love, loyalty and wit. She has strong and moral opinions and she does not need to argue with anyone to try to convince them.
She is full of crafty notions and homemaking skills.
She is my best friend and is the one person in the world who I know loves me anyway. She is patient and funny and makes me laugh when I am going to cry. And almost drive off the road in joyous laughter at her ridiculousness.
She loves a good book on almost any subject. She made me interested in Sherlock Holmes many years ago! And now young Emma has her head buried in books as well.  
I don’t think that poetry is quite her thing, although she will read it for my sake.
For her I offer a poem from dear Emily Dickinson that expresses our shared love of books:
A PRECIOUS, mouldering pleasure ’t is
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,
His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.
His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;
What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty,
And Sophocles a man;
When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,
He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true:
He lived where dreams were born.
His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.



And so God Bless you Sister, on your day of days. I love you very much. You are my girl.

Monday, April 23, 2012

April 24

April 24, 1847 Mrs. Browning has just arrived in Florence and writes to her old neighbor Mrs. Martin:

"I can't walk about or see anything. I lie here flat on the sofa in order to be wise; I rest and take port wine by wineglasses; and a few more days of it will prepare me, I hope and trust, for an interview with the Venus de' Medici. Think of my having been in Florence since Tuesday, this being Saturday, and not a step taken into the galleries. It seems a disgrace, a sort of involuntary disgraceful act, or rather no-act, which to complain of relieves one to some degree...There is nothing really much the matter with me; I am just weak, sleeping and eating dreadfully well considering that Florence isn't seen yet, and 'looking well,' too, says Mrs. Jameson, who, with her niece, is our guest just now. It would have been wise if I had rested longer at Pisa, but, you see, there was a long engagement to meet Mrs. Jameson here, and she expressed a very kind unwillingness to leave Italy without keeping it: also she had resolved to come out of her way on purpose for this, and, as I had the consent of my physician, we determined to perform our part of the compact; and in order to prepare for the longer journey I went out in the carriage a little too soon, perhaps, and a little too long. At least, if I had kept quite still I should have been strong by this time—not that I have done myself harm in the serious sense, observe—and now the affair is accomplished, I shall be wonderfully discreet and self-denying, and resist Venuses and Apollos like some one wiser than the gods themselves. My chest is very well; there has been no symptom of evil in that quarter.... We took the whole coupĂ© of the diligence—but regretted our first plan of the vettura nevertheless—and now are settled in very comfortable rooms in the 'Via delle Belle Donne' just out of the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, very superior rooms to our apartment in Pisa, in which we were cheated to the uttermost with all the subtlety of Italy and to the full extent of our ignorance; think what that must have been! Our present apartment, with the hire of a grand piano and music, does not cost us so much within ever so many francisconi. Oh, and you don't frighten me though we are on the north side of the Arno! We have taken our rooms for two months, and may be here longer, and the fear of the heat was stronger with me than the fear of the cold, or we might have been in the Pitti and 'arrostiti' by this time. We expected dear Mrs. Jameson on Saturday, but she came on Friday evening, having suddenly remembered that it was Shakespeare's birthday, and bringing with her from Arezzo a bottle of wine to 'drink to his memory with two other poets,' so there was a great deal of merriment, as you may fancy, and Robert played Shakespeare's favorite air, 'The Light of Love,' and everybody was delighted to meet everybody, and Roman news and Pisan dullness were properly discussed on every side. She saw a good deal of Cobden* in Rome, and went with him to the Sistine Chapel. He has no feeling for art, and, being very true and earnest, could only do his best to try to admire Michael Angelo; but here and there, where he understood, the pleasure was expressed with a blunt characteristic simplicity. Standing before the statue of Demosthenes, he said: 'That man is persuaded himself of what he speaks, and will therefore persuade others.' She liked him exceedingly. For my part, I should join in more admiration if it were not for his having accepted money, but paid patriots are no heroes of mine. 'Verily they have their reward.'...Yes, indeed, I mean to enjoy art and nature too; one shall not exclude the other. This Florence seems divine as we pass the bridges, and my husband, who knows everything, is to teach and show me all the great wonders, so that I am reasonably impatient to try my advantages. His kind regards to you both, and my best love, dearest friends...."

This letter does not mention the reason Mrs. Browning is lying on her sofa when her 'chest is very well'. She had her first miscarriage on March 21, 1847 while in Pisa. It has slowed her down physically but she is champing at the bit to be out in the world of art. She is getting her first taste of the world and it is to her liking.

*From Wiki: "Richard Cobden (3 June 1804 – 2 April 1865) was a British manufacturer and  Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League. He has been called "[t]he greatest classical liberal thinker on international affairs". EBB wrote "The Cry of the Children" in support of the Anti-Corn Law movement.

April 23

April 23, 1846 brings an interesting confession from Miss Barrett:

"...You are the best, I know, of all in the world. Did I tell you once that my love was 'something'? Yet it is nothing: because there is no woman, let her heart be ever so made of stone & steel, who could HELP loving you,..I answer for all women!--so this is no merit of mine, though it is the best thing I ever did in my life.

Dearest beloved, when I used to tell you to give me up, & imagined to myself how I should feel if you did it,..& thought it would not be much worse that it was before I knew you..( a little better indeed, inasmuch as I had the memory for ever..) the chief pang was the idea of another woman..!From THAT, I have turned back again & again, recoiling like a horse set against too high a wall. Therefore, if I talk of what all women would do, I do not mean that they SHOULD."

The idea of Miss Barrett being jealous is fascinating. Another thing that is interesting to me is in the first paragraph quoted here. Browning had said that he had to listen to her praise him 49 days out of 50 and she denied that vigorously. And yet here we see abject flattery. Browning was no doubt very charming and intelligent but there are many, many women that would have rejected him simply based on his looks. Browning for all of his charm was not especially handsome of face. It is also interesting given how sensitive she was herself that she was no beauty. A further majority of women would have rejected this man for his lack of funding. So on the whole I would say: Flattery. But loving flattery.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

April 22

Browning responds as he might to Miss Barrett's letter of reproach:

"I never thought I should convince you, dearest--and I was foolish to write so, since it makes you reply so: at all events, I do not habitually offend in this kind--forty-nine days out of fifty I hear my own praises from your lips; and yet keep silence--on the fiftieth I protest gently--is that too much? Then I will be quiet altogether, my Ba, and get a comfort out of the consciousness of obedience that at least. But I should like some  talking-bird to tell you the struggle there is and what I could say--Shall I idealize you into mere mist, Ba, and the the fine, fine, last of you? Well, I cannot even play with the fancy of that--so, one day, when so much is to be cleared up between us, look for a word or two on this matter also--Some savage speech about 'the hand I was to have dropped'--the whole ending with the Promethean [Thus upon scorners I retort their scorn]! Meanwhile my revenge on the hand must be to kiss it--I kiss it."

In the ending paragraph of the letter he drops a line that will lead to more chaos!

"I ought to tell you that I went to my doctor last evening--(remembering to whom I promised I would do so, if need were, or good seemed likely to follow)--and he speaks encouragingly and I have engaged to be obedient; perhaps, because he ordains no very intolerant laws. He says I am better that when he saw me last--and, as he wanted then to begin to prescribe,...there is clearly a gain of about two months comfort!"

Oh, dear. He did what she wanted him to do. And what is the result? She writes back immediately:

"Then seriously you are not well, since you went for the medical advise after all! that is the thought which is uppermost as the effect of your letter, though I ought to be grateful to you (& am!) for remembering to keep your promise, made two months ago. But how can I help thinking that you are ill..help knowing that you felt very ill before you came to consider that promise? You did feel very ill..now did you not? and I see in this letter that you are not well--I see plainly, plainly..! Have you been using the showerbath? tell me:--and tell me how you are--do not keep back anything. for the rest, you will submit to the advice, you say, & you mean to submit, I think, my own very dearest--remember that all my light comes, not only through you, but from you, let it be April light or November light...You will be careful,..will you not?..in these? I am not happy about you tonight. I feel as if you are worse perhaps than you say."

The editor of the letters, Kintner, notes that Miss Barrett felt she could read Browning's handwriting which was much ruffled when he was sick or upset about something. This would explain her "I see in this letter that you are not well." She is pretty adamant that he not be sick. But even so, she does have to 'teaze' the man:

"And you make a piteous case out for yourself against me, indeed...& it seems very hard to have to endure so much, 'forty-nine days out of fifty'...I did not think it was so bad with you!--And when you protest gently on the fiftieth day..so gently..so  gently..!!--Well, the fact is that you forget perhaps what sort of gentle protestations it was, you wrote me on sunday, you who protest so gently, & never flatter! And as for having your own 'praises blown into your eyes' for forty-nine days together, I cannot confess to the iniquity of it,..you mistake, you mistake, as well as forget--only that I will not vex you & convict you too much now that you are not well. So we shall have peace..shall we not?..on each side. I never write extravagances..ah, but we will not write of them, even....Yet you are not well! say how you are! I come clear out of the mist to call myself
Your very own Ba"

As I note earlier, for all of the fame Miss Barrett had for being an invalid cloistered in her room, we really do hear more about Browning's many headaches and illnesses than Miss Barrett's, in these letters. And we do hear much about this showerbath that Browning seems to indulge in but Miss Barrett seems to fear. She rather accuses him of taking showerbaths! I foresee him having to defend himself against charges of being secretly ill.

April 21

Miss Barrett has received Browning's previous letter and as one might expect she does not accept the premise and so she responds April 21, 1846:

"I would not say to you yesterday, perhaps could not, that you wrote ever so much foolishness to me in the morning, dearest, & that I knew it ever so well. There is no use, no help, in discussing certain questions: some sorts of extravagances grow by talking of: shake this elixir, & you have more & more bubbles on the surface of it. So I would not speak--nor will I write much. Only I PROTEST, from my understanding..from my heart...and besides I do assert the truth..clear of any 'affectation,' this time--& it is that you always make me melancholy by using such words. It seems to me as if you were in the dark altogether, & held my hand for another's --let the shutter be opened suddenly..& the hand is dropped perhaps..must I not think such thoughts, when you speak such words?--I ask you if it is not reasonable. No, I do not ask you. We will not argue whether eagles creep or worms fly. And see if it is distrust on my part! Love, I have learnt to believe in....But when you say that the blue, I see, is red, and that the little crystals are the fixed stars of the heavens how am I to think of you but that you are deluded..mistaken?--& in what? in love itself?--Ah,--if you could know..if you could but know for a full moment of conviction, how you depress & alarm me by saying such things, you would never say them afterwards, I know. So trust to me, even as I trust to you..& do not say them ever again,..YOU, who 'never flatter'. Is it not enough that you love me?--Is there anything greater? And will you run the risk of ruining that great wonder by bringing it to the test of an 'argumentum ad absurdum' such as I might draw from your letter? Have pity on me, my own dearest, & consider how I must feel to see myself idealized away, little by little...Now you will not any more. When the world comes to judge between us two, or rather over us both, the world will say (even the purblind world, as I myself with wide open eyes!) that I have not been generous with my gifts--no--,you are in a position to choose..& you might have chosen better--..that is my immovable conviction. It has been only your love for me,..which I believe in purely as love..& which, being love, does not come by pure logic, as the world itself may guess..it had been only, wholly & purely you love for me which has made a level for us two to meet & stand together. There is my fact against your fiction!--Now let us talk no more. We cannot agree, because we stand in different positions..."I hear a voice you cannot hear"!..I am on the black side of the knight's shield. Presently you will hear perhaps, & see. Shall you love me then? When the ideal breaks off, when the light is gone,..will you love me then for the love which I shall bear you then as now,..the only real thing?--"

This letter was inevitable. Again, an unconventional response. Another woman might simply have accepted the compliment of his letter, thought it a dramatic over statement and have been quietly flattered. But not Miss Barrett. She was compelled to explain to him exactly why he was wrong to have written it and wrong in his belief of what he perceived. It could be summed up by the idea that she loved him too much to have him mistaken in her. A merciless self critique for love.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

April 19

April 19, 1846 Browning continues to comment on Miss Barrett's letter of April 17:

"Just now I read again your last note for a particular purpose of thinking about the end of it..where you say, as you have said so many times, 'that your hand was not stretched out to the good--it came to you sleeping'--etc. I wanted to try and find out and be able to explain to myself, and perhaps to you, why the wrongness in you should be so exquisitely dear to me, dear as the rightness, or dearer, inasmuch as it is the topmost grace of all, seen latest on leaving the contemplation of the others, and first on returning to them------because, Ba, that adorable spirit in all these phrases,--what I should adore without their embodiment in these phrases,--which fall into my heart and stay there,--that strange unconsciousness of how the love account really stands between us,--who was giver altogether and who taker,--and, by consequence, what is the befitting virtue for each of us, a generous disposition to forgetfulness on the giver's part, as of everlasting remembrance and gratitude on the other--this unconsciousness is wrong, my heart's darling, strangely wrong by the contrast with your marvelous apprehension on other points, every other point I am capable of following you to: I solemnly assure you I cannot imagine any point of view wherein I ought to appear to any rational creature the benefitting party and you the benefitted--nor any matter in which I can be supposed to be even magnanimous,--(so that it might be said, 'there, is a sacrifice'--'that, is to be borne with' &c)--none where such a supposition is not degrading to me, dishonoring and affronting. I know you, my Ba,--not because you are my Ba, but thro' the best exercise of whatever power in me you too often praise, I know--that you are immeasurably my superior,--while you talk most eloquently and affectingly to me, I know and could prove you are as much my Poet as my Mistress; if I suspected it before I knew you, personally, how is it with me NOW? I feel it every day, I tell myself every day it is so. Yet you do not feel or know it--for you to write thus to me. Well,--and this is what I meant to say from the beginning of the letter, I love your inability to feel it in spite of right and justice and rationality. I would,--I will, at a moment's notice, give you back your golden words, and lie under your mind supremacy as I take unutterable delight in doing under your eye, your hand....But I did not mean to try and explain what is unexplainable after all--(tho' I wisely said I would try and explain!) You seem to me altogether...(if you think my words sounded like flattery, here shall come at the end--anything but that!)--you do seem, my precious Ba, too entirely mine this minute,--my heart's, my senses', my soul's precise ['the beautiful, the true, the good'*] to last!--Too perfect for that! the true power with the ignorance of it,--the real hold of my heart, as you can hold this letter,--yet the fear with it that you may 'vex me' by a word,--'make me angry.' Well,--if one must see an end of all perfection--still, to know one was privileged to see it...."

*rough translation from Browning's Greek

Well, what can one say about this letter? What was in Miss Barrett that brought out this all encompassing love and worship from Browning? This was no mere exercise of wooing. He could have wooed any woman in London with words like these. An heiress would have been a more promising target for a penniless poet. These words would have been wasted on a self-confident woman of the world. These words were perfect for a moral woman who could not see her self worth. The effect they have on Miss Barrett may be difficult to predict. Will her wonderful wit save her from his overpowering words; will she admit that she is pretty darn spectacular and it's about time someone noticed? Or will she cringe and hide her head? He is going to see her tomorrow at Wimpole Street. We will have to wait for April 21 to see what her reaction is to this latest salvo of love.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

April 18

April 18, 1846 Browning is receiving letters of congratulation from his literary friends for his latest episode of 'Bells and Pomegranates':

"Because, here is Mr. Kenyon's and Landor's (which had been sent to to Moxon's [his publisher] some days ago,--whence the delay)--and Mrs. Jameson's. All kind and indulgent and flattering in their various ways..but my Ba, me dear, dear Ba,...I like to be praised now, in a sense, much, much more than ever--but, darling,--oh how easily, if need were, I could know the world was abusing at it's loudest outside,--if you were inside..tho' but the thinnist of guaze canopies kept us from the buzzing! This is only said on this subject, struck out by it,--not of it,--for the praise is good true praise and from the worthies of out time--but--you, I love,--and there is the world-wide difference. And what ought I say to Mr. Kenyon's report of me? Stand quietly, assentingly? You will agree with this at least, that he cannot know what he says--only be disposed to hope and believe it is so: still, to speak so to you--what would I not do to repay him, if that could be!...Do I 'remember' praying God to bless me thro' the blessing on you? Shall I ever forget to pray so, rather! My dear--dearest, I pray now, with all my heart,--may He bless you--and what else can now bless your own R?--

Charming as usual but the comment about Kenyon not really knowing him is characteristic. Most men would of course demure and be humble. But Browning takes it a step further and questions it without denying it. A different kind of thinker. Unconventional.

He has begun to answer her last letter with this, but we will find tomorrow that he goes back to her most recent letter again. He again proves the point he made early in their correspondence that he doesn't know what to write to her if he doesn't have a letter of her's to respond to. Interestingly there is no letter from Miss Barrett on April 18, 19 or 20 (the date of their regular visit). She does not follow her own dictum in letter writing, but perhaps a reason for this lapse will emerge.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April 17

April 17, 1846 brings words of love from Browning after Miss Barrett has informed him that she has gone out and purchased a new bonnet. He is excited because he sees that she is moving toward taking the big step forward:

"...the bonnet is bought! And you pretend not to know I would walk barefoot till I dropped, if so I might attain to the sight of you, and it--do let me say, for gratitude's sake--it is like the sign of spring in Shelley's Prometheus--
'When mild winds shake the elder-brake,
And the wandering herdsmen know
That the white thorn soon will blow':
--that the flower of my life will blow!"

And he addresses the need for them to coordinate their responses to any inquiries from their mutual friend and ally:

"...I spoke about Mr. Kenyon,--because I never would in my life take a step for myself--(if that could be)--apart from your good--without being by you where possible--much more, therefore in a matter directly concerning you,--rather than me,-did I want you opinion as to the course more proper, in the event of &c. I do not think it likely he will speak, or I shall have to answer..but if that did happen, and you were not at hand, my own dearest,--how I should be grieved if, answering wrongly, I give you annoyance!--Here I seem to understand your wish"

Mr. Kenyon is on Miss Barrrett's mind as well:

"Today Mr. Kenyon came, spectacles & all. He sleeps in those spectacles now, I think. Well, & the first question was..'Have you seen Mr. Browning? And what did he come for again, pray?' 'Why I suppose,' said I, 'for the bad reason my visitors have in general, when they come to see me'--then very quickly I asked about 'Luria', & if he had read it & what he thought of it--upon which the whole pomegranate was pulled out of his pocket, & he began to talk like the agreeable man he can be when he doesn't ask questions & look discerningly through spectacles...We talked & talked--And then he put the book into his pocket to carry it away to some friend of his, unnamed: and we had some conversation about poets in general & their way of living, of Wordsworth and Coleridge...I like to hear Mr. Kenyon talk of the gods and how he used to sit within the thunder-peal. Presently leaning up against the chimney piece--he said quietly..'Do you not think..oh, I am sure I need not ask you..in fact I know your thoughts of it..but how strikingly upright & loyal in all his ways & acts Mr. Browning is!..how impeccable as a gentleman' &c. &c. and so on & on..I do not tell you any more, because I should be tired perhaps..(do you understand?..) & this is not the first time, nor second, nor third time that he has spoken of you personally, so..& as no man could use more reverent language of another."

If Kenyon is saying this about Browning to Miss Barrett, what did he say to Browning about Miss Barrett? He praised her to the moon as well. They came together at his suggestion and based on his perception of their finer qualities. Matchmaker to the poets.

She ends with a reminiscence:

"Do you remember when you wrote first to me 'May God bless you & me in that!' It was before we met. Can you guess what I thought?--I have the whole effect in my memory distinctly. I felt with a bitter feeling, that it was quite a pity to throw away such beautiful words out of the window into the dark...Well, I am glad in looking back..yes, glad..glad to be certain at my heart, that I did not assume anything..stretch out my hand for anything..dearest!..
It is always when one is asleep that the dream-angels come. Watchers see nothing but ghosts."

She is very wise. And perhaps a little melancholy.

Monday, April 16, 2012

April 16

Today we will go back to 1844 when Miss Barrett writes another charming letter to Mr. Westwood:

"Oh, and I should say also that Mr. Home, in his kindness, has enlarged considerably in his annotations and reflections on me personally. My being in correspondence with all the Kings of the East, for instance, is an exaggeration, although literary work in one way will bring with it, happily, literary association in others.... Still, I am not a great letter writer, and I don't write 'elegant Latin verses,' as all the gods of Rome know, and I have not been shut up in the dark for seven years by any manner of means. By the way, a barrister said to my barrister brother the other day, 'I suppose your sister is dead?' 'Dead?' said he, a little struck; 'dead?' 'Why, yes. After Mr. Home's account of her being sealed up hermetically in the dark for so many years, one can only calculate upon her being dead by this time.'"

Okay, so she doesn't write verses in Latin and she doesn't correspond with Kings of the East. I will give her that. But "I am not a great letter writer". Please. And we get to see her brother George giving her the needle in the death struggle.

Browning writes April 16, 1845 to say:

"Monday—last night when I could do nothing else I began to write to you, such writing as you have seen—strange! The proper time and season for good sound sensible and profitable forms of speech—when ought it to have occurred, and how did I evade it in these letters of mine? For people begin with a graceful skittish levity, lest you should be struck all of a heap with what is to come, and that is sure to be the stuff and staple of the man, full of wisdom and sorrow,—and then again comes the fringe of reeds and pink little stones on the other side, that you may put foot on land, and draw breath, and think what a deep pond you have swum across. But you are the real deep wonder of a creature,—and I sail these paper-boats on you rather impudently. But I always mean to be very grave one day,—when I am in better spirits and can go fuori di me [outside myself].

And one thing I want to persuade you of, which is, that all you gain by travel is the discovery that you have gained nothing, and have done rightly in trusting to your innate ideas—or not rightly in distrusting them, as the case may be. You get, too, a little ... perhaps a considerable, good, in finding the world's accepted moulds everywhere, into which you may run and fix your own fused metal,—but not a grain Troy-weight do you get of new gold, silver or brass. After this, you go boldly on your own resources, and are justified to yourself, that's all. Three scratches with a pen, even with this pen,—and you have the green little Syrenusa where I have sate and heard the quails sing. One of these days I shall describe a country I have seen in my soul only, fruits, flowers, birds and all."

Browning being sage and wise and full of imagination. The poet in prose. In another month a page will turn and all the casual musing will end.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April 14

Strangely enough, after all the argumentation of the last few days, Browning seems pretty content, despite Mrs. Proctor's opinion that he needed something to occupy him for eight hours a day. He is discussing her request that they leave England immediately after their marriage in his letter of April 14, 1846:

"With respect to the immediate leaving England, you will let me say, I think, that all my own projects depend on that,--there will not be one least objection made to it by my father or mother, I know beforehand. You perhaps misconceived something I said last Saturday. I meant the obvious fact however--that while there would be a best way of finding myself with you, still, from the WORST way (probably of taking a house opposite Mrs. Proctor's)--from that even, to the best way of any other life I can imagine,--what a descent!--From the worst of roses to the most flourishing of----dandelions. But we breathe together, understand together, know, feel, live together...I feel every day less and less need of trying to assure you I feel thus & thus--I seem to know that you must know!"

Really? After all that fuss and argumentation and vexation he thinks she 'must know!'? Maybe he is getting to a point where he can read her better and sees all her argumentation as her way of 'teazing' and testing him. But does he? Or is he just being optimistic for her sake? It's hard to tell, but he certainly seems determined to win her.

"Mrs. Proctor is exactly the Mrs. Proctor I knew long ago. What she says is of course purely foolish. The world does seem incurably stupid on this, as other points. I understand Mr. Kenyon's implied kindness...he may think he sees my true good in this life with older & better instructed eyes than my own--so benevolent people beg me 'not to go out in the open air--without something about my neck,' and would gird on a triple worsted 'comforter' there, entirely for my good, if I would let them. 'Why Mr. Proctor wears one'! Ah, but without it, what a cold he would catch!"

So his reaction to Mrs. Proctor's criticism is fairly muted. He simply dismisses her as stupid. That is one of his more succinct arguments. So, tomorrow there will be no letters because he is going to Wimpole Street for his visit. What new drama will darken their letters on April 16?







Friday, April 13, 2012

April 13

April 13, 1846 Miss Barrett has received the just published volume of Browning's latest collection of poetry:

"...here is the last 'Bell & Pomegranate':...Thank you for the book, thank you! I turn over the leaves ever so proudly. Tell me how I can be proud of you, when I cannot be proud of your loving me:--I am certainly proud of YOU. One of my first searches was for the note explanatory of the title--&I looked, and looked, & looked, at the end, at the beginning, at the end again. At last I made up my mind that you had persisted in not explaining, or that the printer had dropped the manuscript. Why, what could make you thrust that note on all but the title page of the 'Soul's Tragedy'? Oh--I comprehend. Having submitted to explain, quite at the point of the bayonet, you determined at least to do it where nobody could see it done. Be frank & tell me that it was just so. Also the poor 'Soul's Tragedy' you have repudiated so from Bells & Pomegranates...pushing it gently aside. Well--you must allow it to be a curious dislocation--only it is not important--and I like the note, all, except the sentence about 'Faith & Works' which does not apply I think,...that instance. 'Bells & Pomagranates' is a symbolic phrase--which the other is not at all, however much difficult & doubtful theological argument may have arisen from it as a collective phrase. So I am the first critic, you see...."

She is not shy to tell him what is wrong with his book of poetry. That is her strength and she knows it. She does enjoy the 'teaze' and the torment that it brings her later. But her critique soon ends and she heads off in another direction:

"...did you come into London on Sunday? did you walk past this house on the other side of the street about two oclock? Because just then I and Flush went down stairs. The drawing room had no one in it, & the window being wide open, I walked straight to it to shut it--And there across the street, walked someone...I am so near sighted that I could only see a shadow in a dimness..but the shadow had or seemed to have, a sign of you, a trace of you...& instead of shutting the window I looked after it till it vanished--No, it was not you. I feel now that is was not you; & indeed yesterday I felt it was not you. But, for the moment, it made my heart stop beating..that insolent shadow,..which pretended to be you & wasn't. Some one, I dare say, who 'has an occupation eight or nine hours a day' & never does anything! I may speak against him, for deceiving me--its a pure justice."

She does like to play with fire. I feel like she is beginning to trust him. She 'teazes' him almost brutally sometimes for she addresses his comment that he wanted to live with her "if but for a year, a month":

"And is it to be for a 'year' or a 'month'--or a week,--better still?--or we may end by a compromise for the two hours on Wednesday,...if it goes on so,--more sensibly."

She is cruel to her lovesick puppy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

April 12

Browning made his visit to Wimpole Street April 11, 1846 and April 12 brought  yet another letter from Miss Barrett touching on the dueling argument:

"I will not speak much of the letter, as you desire that I should not. And because everything you write must be answered in some way & sense,..must have some result,..there is less need of words in the present case. Let me say only then, ever dearest, dearest that I never felt towards you as I felt when I had read that letter..never loved you so entirely!..that it went to my heart, & stayed there, & seemed to mix with the blood of it..believe this of me, dear dearest beloved!...ah, you are so fond of dressing me up in pontifical garments! ('for fun,' as the children say!)--because they are too large for me, they drop off always of themselves,..they do not require my pulling them off: these extravagances get righted of their own accord. After all, too, you,..with that preternatural submissiveness of yours,..you know your power upon the whole, & understand, in the midst of obeisances, that you can do very much what you please, with your High Priest.

And now, do you see. It was natural that when we differed for the first time I should fall into low spirits. In the night, at dream-time, when instead of dreams 'deep thought falleth upon man,' suddenly I have been sad even to tears, do you know, to think of that: & whenever I am not glad, the old fears & misgivings come back--no, you do not understand..you CANNOT, perhaps!....never think of yourself that you have expressed 'insufficiently' your feelings for me....I know that you love me....& it is through my want of familiarity with any happiness..through the want of use in carrying these weights of flowers, that I drop them again and again out of weak hands. Besides the truth is, that I am not worthy of you--& if you were to see it just as I see it, why there would be an end..there,..I sometimes think reasonably. Well now I shall be good for at least a fortnight. Do I not teaze you & give you trouble? I feel ashamed of myself sometimes."

So, why didn't she say this during their meeting the previous day? How will they get along if they marry? Will she send him notes to explain her policy positions? Browning often expresses the opinion that when they are together these types of communication problems will be eliminated, but her disinclination to discuss these things with him directly will have to be overcome, as I suspect they will be. She is used to her father always winning the battles due to his position of authority. She does not know how to react when she wins the argument. It is almost like she needs to keep slugging away when her opponent is already on the mat and then apologize that she knocked him out through over punching. But you can see her slight smile at the end when she 'teazes' that she feels ashamed of herself. She won the argument, but perhaps it was almost too easy. Is she toying with her boy?

But she cannot help herself and tells him of a conversation she had with Mr. Kenyon who has confided that Mrs. Proctor wondered what Browning's "objects in life were."

"Because Mrs. Proctor had been saying that it was a pity that he had not seven or eight hours a day of occupation....And I did say that you 'did not require an occupation as a means of living..having simple habits & desires--nor as an end of living, since you found one in the exercise of your genius! & that if Mr. Proctor had looked as simply to his art as an end, he would have done better things.' Which made Mr. Kenyon cry out..'Ah now! you are spiteful!--and you need not be, for there was nothing unkind in what she said.' 'But absurd'!--I insisted--'seeing that to put race horses into dray carts, was not usually done nor advised.'...Mr. Kenyon spoke of your family & of yourself with the best & most reverent words."

Certainly a spirited defense of her poet. It is a wonder Mr. Kenyon didn't catch a bit of a clue there, if a clue he wanted to catch. However, I suspect that this little tidbit of conversation will be upsetting to the sensitive Browning. He, after all, has no income. He is 34 years old and his father pays to have his poetry published. He wants to marry an invalid and live on air in Italy. It does seem a bit far fetched. But Browning's letter sees nothing of this coming...he has made it out of one hornets nest and is headed into another...but in the mean time he is just in love and his poems are published:

"...do think, my own Ba, in the direction I indicated yesterday--any obstacle now, would be more than I could bear--I feel I must live with you,--if but for a year, a month--to express the love which words cannot express, not these letters, nor aught else."

Ah, the poor lovesick puppy.

"Here, comes Luria & the other--and I lay it at my dear Lady's feet, wishing it were worthier of them, and only comforted, thro' all the conviction of the offering's unworthiness, by knowing that she will know,--the dear, peerless, all precious Ba I adore, will know--that I would give her my life gladlier at a word. See what I have written on the outside-'to Miss Barrett'!--because I thought even leaving out the name might look suspiciously!--But where no eye can see; save your dear eye..there is written a dedication."

What will Miss Barrett say to that? You never know, she's a quirky one, that one is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

April 10

On April 10, 1846 Browning completely capitulates on the dueling argument:

"Dearest, sweetest best--how can you, seeing so much, yet see that 'possibility'--I leave off loving you! and be 'angry' and 'vexed' and the rest!...I protest in the most solemn way I am capable of conceiving, that I am altogether unable to imagine how or whence or why any possible form of anger or vexation or anything akin can or could or should or shall ever rise in me to you--it is a sense hitherto undreamed of, a new faculty--altogether and inexplicable, impossible feeling..To say, 'if you did thus or thus.'..--what I know you could no more do than go and kill cows with your own hand, and dig up kale grounds? but I can fancy your being angry with me, very angry--and speaking the truth of the anger--that is to be fancied: and God knows I should in that case kiss my letters, here, till you pleased to judge me not unworthy to kiss the hem of your garment again...What are you given me for but to make me better--and , in that, happier?..did I not pray you at the beginning to tell me the instant you detected anything to be altered by human effort? to become more like you and worthier of you? and here where you find me gravely in the wrong, and I am growing conscious of being in the wrong,--...YOU ARE RIGHT and I am wrong and will lay it to heart, and now kiss, not your feet this time, because I am the prouder, not from the more humble, by this admission and retraction--

Your note arrives here--Ba;--it would have been 'better for me' THAT? [In her previous letter she thought it better for him to have never seen her face.] Oh, dearest, let us marry soon, very soon, and end all this!..Can you, now, by this time tell me or yourself that you could believe me happy with any other woman that ever breathed? I tell you, without affectation, that I lay the whole blame on myself,..that I feel that if I had spoken my love out SUFFICIENTLY, all this doubt could never have been possible. You quite believe that I am in earnest, know my own mind and speak as I feel, on these points we disputed about--yet I am far from being sure of it, or so it seems now--but, as for loving you,--there I mistake, or may be wrong, or may, or might or or--...when I am away, all the mistaking begins--let it end soon, soon, dearest life of my life, light of my soul, heart's joy of my heart!--

May God bless you, dearest--and show you the truth in me, the one truth which I dare hope compensates for so much that is to be forgiven: when I told you at the beginning I was not worthy, was infinitely lower &c you seemed incredulous! well now, you see! I, that you WOULD persist in hoping better things of, held such opinions as those--and so you begin setting me right, and so I am set far on towards right--is not all well, love? And now go on, when I give next occasion, and tell me more, and let me alter more, and thank you,--if I can, more--but not love you more, you, Ba, whom I love wholly, with all my faculties, all my being....

Oh, boy, does he lay it on thick. He has totally abased himself to her. But will she buy it? Her skepticism seems to have no bounds. I enjoyed the bit where he scolds her for believing that his letter reflected his true feelings on dueling but she wouldn't accept his words of love as his true feelings. Very well played Mr. Browning. However, I can see her arguing that the fact that he is retreating demonstrates that his love could retreat as well. Perversity, thy name is Miss Barrett. Well, their plans are to meet the next day so we shall see if they make up the duelling thread then or if it continues on with one last word...

Monday, April 9, 2012

April 9

Our two poets continue, in a calmer fashion, their discussion of duelling on April 9, 1846. Browning sends a short note:

"...I submit, unfeigningly, to you, there as elsewhere--and,--as I said, I think,--I wrote so, precisely because it was never likely to be my own case,--I should consider it the most unhappy thing that could possibly happen to me...
Do you know, next Saturday...will be the anniversary of Mr. Kenyon's asking me, some four years ago, 'if I would like to see Miss B.' How I remember! I was staying with him for a couple of days. Now,--I will ask myself 'would you like to kiss Ba?' 'The comes the Selah [pause].' Goodbye, dearest-dearest!"

So he has submitted to her on the subject of duelling, and changes the subject. Hmm...I wonder how she will take that?

"You are good & kind,..too good & kind,..always, always!--& I love you gratefully & shall to the end, and with an unspeakable apprehension of what you are in yourself, & to me:--yet you cannot, you know,--you cannot, dearest..'submit' to me in an opinion, any more than I could to you, if I desired it ever so anxiously. We will talk no more however on the subject now--I have had some pain from it, of course..but I am satisfied to have had the pain, for the knowledge..which was as necessary as possible, under circumstances, for more reasons than one--
Dearest..before I go to talk of something else..will you be besought of me to consider within yourself,..& not with me to teaze you,--why the 'case,' spoken of, should 'never in likelihood be your own'? Are you & yours charmed from the influence of offensive observations..personally offensive?--'The most unhappy thing that could happen to you,' is it, on that account, the farthest thing?"

While typing this last a thought occurred to me that perhaps she thought her father or one of her brothers would call Browning out and that they would duel it out in Regents Park. Seems pretty far fetched. Perhaps she thought the Rev. George Barrett Hunter, her erstwhile suitor who she earlier described as 'violent', might take a glove to Browning and send his second to New Cross so that Browning could choose his weapon. Probably not. Did Reverends duel? She seemed more interested in it as a moral position; thinking that she and Browning were totally simpatico and finding that they were not rather stirred her up. So she ends on a melancholy note:

"I think of you, bless you, love you--but it would have been better for you never to have seen my face perhaps, though Mr. Kenyon gave the first leave. Perhaps!!--I 'flatter' myself to-night..."

Not to burden the date, but here is an interesting letter from Miss Barrett to a Mr. Westwood (if I remember correctly he was an editor and critic) on April 9, 1845:

"...I am delighted that you should appreciate Mr. Browning's high power—very high, according to my view—very high, and various. Yes, 'Paracelsus' you should have. 'Sordello' has many fine things in it, but, having been thrown down by many hands as unintelligible, and retained in mine as certainly of the Sphinxine literature, with all its power, I hesitate to be imperious to you in my recommendations of it. Still, the book is worth being studied—study is necessary to it, as, indeed, though in a less degree, to all the works of this poet; study is peculiarly necessary to it. He is a true poet, and a poet, I believe, of a large 'future in-rus, about to be.' He is only growing to the height he will attain."

And again later in April:

"The sin of Sphinxine literature I admit. Have I not struggled hard to renounce it? Do I not, day by day? Do you know that I have been told that I have written things harder to interpret than Browning himself?—only I cannot, cannot believe it—he is so very hard. Tell me honestly (and although I attributed the excessive good nature of the 'Metropolitan' criticism to you, I know that you can speak the truth truly!) if anything like the Sphinxineness of Browning, you discover in me; take me as far back as 'The Seraphim' volume and answer! As for Browning, the fault is certainly great, and the disadvantage scarcely calculable, it is so great. He cuts his language into bits, and one has to join them together, as young children do their dissected maps, in order to make any meaning at all, and to study hard before one can do it. Not that I grudge the study or the time. The depth and power of the significance (when it is apprehended) glorifies the puzzle. With you and me it is so; but with the majority of readers, even of readers of poetry, it is not and cannot be so.
The consequence is, that he is not read except in a peculiar circle very strait and narrow. He will not die, because the principle of life is in him, but he will not live the warm summer life which is permitted to many of very inferior faculty, because he does not come out into the sun."

She is early in her correspondence with Browning and she is not blind to his faults. But when you read her letters to him she always praises his poems, even Sordello which is universally recognized as indecipherable! Perhaps her goal was to drag Browning in the poetic sun while she dragged herself into the Italian sun.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

April 8

And so, April 8, 1846 Browning responds to Miss Barrett's scorching letter regarding dueling. His argument is so complicated that I urge you to read the whole thing for yourself. However, I will try to give the the general gist of it. It is rather like a stream of consciousness in that he appears to be working out the argument as he goes along, one thought leads him to another thought which leads him to another.

"First of all kiss me, dearest,--and again--and now, with the left arm round you, I will write what I think in as few words as possible. I think the fault of not carrying out principles is yours....Is 'society' a thing to desire to participate in,..not by the exceptional case out of the million, but by men generally,--men who live only for livings sake, in the first instance; next men who, having ulterior objects & aims of happiness, yet drive various degrees of sustainment & comfort from the social life around them; and so on, higher up, till you come to the half dozen, for whom we need not be pressingly urgent to legislate just yet, having to attend to the world first. Well is social life a good, generally to these?...Something occurs which forces a man to hold this, defend this--he must do this or renounce it. You let him do neither. Do not say that he needs to renounce it...you very well know it is a fact that by his refusing to accept a challenge, or send one, on conventionally sufficient ground, he will be infallibly excluded from a certain class of society thenceforth and forever. What society should do rather, is wholly out of the question--what will be done?...

Will you renounce society? I for one, could, easily: so therefore shall Mr. Kenyon! Beside, I on purpose deprecate the value of an admission into society..as if it were only for those who recognize no other value,--and the wiser men might easily forgo it. Not so easily! There are uses in it, great uses quite beyond it's limits--you pass thro' it, mix with it, to get something by it: you do not go into the world to live on the breath of every fool there, but you reach something out of the world by being let go quietly, if not with a favorable welcome among them...Have I to be told that in this world men, foolish or wicked, do inflict tremendous injuries on their unoffending fellows? Let God look into it I say with reverence, and do you look to this point, where the injury is, begins....

Here he begins a long riff on being forced to wear a fools cap by a child and walking through London being pelted until he reached 50 Wimpole St. where he would then be refused entry by the servants and how Mr. Barrett would react, etc. And other examples of how one must conform in society.

 

But I shall be dishonored however--Ba will 'go and call the police'--why, so should I for your brother, in all but the extremist case!--because when I had told the world...that despite his uttermost endeavour, I had done this,--the world would be satisfied at once--and the whole procedure is meant to satisfy the world....The thing to know is, will Ba dictate to her husband 'a refusal to fight' and then recommend him to go to a dinner party? Say 'give up the dinner for my sake,' if you like--one or the other! it must be: you know, I hate and refuse dinner-parties. Does everybody?...

Dear Ba, is Life to become a child's game? A is wronged, B rights him, and is a hero as we say,--B is wronged again, by C; but he must not right himself; that is D's proper part, who again it to let E do that same kind office for him--and so on. 'Defend the poor and fatherless'--and we all applaud--but if they can defend themselves, why not? I will not fancy cases--here's one that strikes me--a fact. Some soldiers were talking over a watch fire abroad--one said that once he was travelling in Scotland and knocked at a cottage-door--and old woman with child let him in, gave him supper and a bed--next morning he asked how they lived, and she said the cow, the milk of which he was then drinking, and the kale in the garden, such as he was eating--were all her 'mailien' or sustenance-whereon, rising to go, he, for the fun, 'killed the cow and destroyed the kale'-'the old witch crying out she should certainly be starved'-then he went away. 'And she was starved, of course,' said the young man; 'do you rue it?'--The other laughed 'Rue aught like that!'--The young man said, 'I was the boy, and that was my mother--now then!'--In a minute or two the preparer  of this 'combination of circumstances' lay writhing with a sword thro' him up to the hilt--'If you had rued it'--the youth said--'you should have answered it only to God.'

More than enough of this--but I was anxious to stand clearer in your dear eyes--'vows and promises!'--I want to leave society for the Siren's isle--and now, I often seriously reproach myself with conduct quite the reverse of what you would guard against: I have too much indifferentism to the opinions of Mr. Smith & Mr. Brown--by no means am anxious to have his notions agree with mine...(11ock Here come your letter!) My own Ba! My dearest best, best beloved! I, angry! oh, how you misinterpret, misunderstand the notions of my mind! In all that I said, or write here, I speak of others--others, if you please, of limited natures: I say why they may be excused..that is all,--'you do not like pork'? But those poor Irish Cottier's whose only luxury is bacon once a month; you understand them liking it? I do not value society--others do--'we are all His children' says Euripides and quotes Paul.

Now, love, let this be a moot point to settle among the flowers one day--with Sir Thomas Browne's other 'hard questions yet not impossible to be solved!' ('What song the sirens sang to Ulysses,' is the first!)--in which blessed hope let me leave off,--for I confess to having written myself all-but-tired, headachy..But 'vexed with you'! Ba, Ba--,you perplex me, bewilder me; let me be right again,-kiss me, dearest, and all is right--God bless you ever--"

What an interesting letter. He begins by telling her that the 'fault' was hers in the carrying forth of principles. He makes a great effort is explaining that to be in society you must conform to society or lose the comfort of society. No effort to teach or reform society? Browning is showing himself as a conventional man. On the fringe of society, wanting to be accepted by society and thus conforming to society. The story he describes as 'fact' does not seem to fit the thread, it sounds more like an execution than a duel. The 11 o'clock letter seems to have saved him. He has time to add that these are mere musings on the subject and do not reflect his true feelings on the subject. He did become famous in his poetry for taking many sides of the same story and fleshing out the argument for each party involved.
In the mean time Miss Barrett is waiting anxiously to see if he is vexed. Whether he is vexed or not I would say she is ahead on points in this argument. Also, worth a mention is that she did not press her argument when he was in her presence, she waited until he was gone and sent him a letter. She did not like personal confrontations. She could not confront her father or her lover. Will she stand her ground on paper or will she back down? She responds charmingly, as can be expected, the same day:

"After the question about the 'Siren's song to Ulysses,' dearest? Then directly before, I suppose, the other 'difficult question' talked of by your Sir Thomas Browne, as to 'what name Achilles bore when he lived among the women.' That, you think, will be an appropriate position for your 'moot point' which, once in England, was guilty of tiring you & making your head ache:--and as for Achilles's name when he lived among the women, it was 'Fool' you will readily guess, & I shall not dare to deny. Only..only..I never shall be convinced on the 'previous question' by the arguments of your letter--it is not possible.
May I say just one thing, without touching that specific subject? There is a certain class of sacrifice which men who live in society, should pay willingly to society..the sacrifice of little or indifferent things..in respect to mere manners & costume. There is another class of sacrifice which should be refused by every righteous man though ever so eminently a social man, & though to the loss of his social position. Now you would be the last I am sure, to confound these two classes of sacrifice--& you will admit that our question is simply between them..& to which of them duelling belongs..& not at all whether society is in itself a desirable thing & much rejoiced in by the Browns & Smiths. You refuse to wear a fools cap in the street, because society forbids you--which is well: but if, in order to avoid wearing it, you shoot the foolish child who forces it upon you..why you do not well, by any means: it would not be well even for a Brown or a Smith--but for my poet of the Bells & Pomegranates, it is very ill, wonderfully ill..so ill that I shut my eyes, & have the heartache (for the headache!) only to think of it. So I will not. Why should we see things so differently, ever dearest?--If anyone had asked me, I could have answered for you that you saw it quite otherwise. And you would hang men even--you!--
Well! Because I do 'not rue' (& I am so much the more unfit to die) I am to be stabbed through the body by an act of 'private judgement' of my next neighbour. So I must take care & 'rue' when I do anything wrong--and I begin now, for being the means of tiring you,..& for seeming to persist so!--You may be right & I wrong, of course--I only speak as I see. And will not speak any more last words...taking pardon for these. I rue-----
You headache!--tell me how your headache is,--remember to tell me. When the letter came, I kissed it by a sort of instinct..not that I do always at first sight, (please to understand) but because the writing did not look angry..not vexed writing. Then I read.."First of all, kiss"....
So it seemed like magic.
Only I know that if I went on to write disagreeing disagreeable letters, you might not help to leave off loving me at the end. I seem to see through this crevice.
Good Heavens!--how dreadfully natural it would be to me, seem to me, if you DID leave off loving me! How it would be like the sun's setting...& no more wonder!--Only more darkness, more pain--May God bless you my only dearest! & me, by keeping me Your Ba"

She does not buy into the idea that these are not his personal arguments. And she refutes them brilliantly and with a light touch. She ridicules them without insulting him. Her use of  'rue' and 'rueing' to point out the flaw in his logic is quite devastating. She really is a brilliant thinker and writer. She stays ahead in points. He doesn't have a leg to stand on.