Saturday, April 7, 2012

April 7

The letters of April 7, 1846 are the beginning of the first major argument of the courtship. Our two poets had met as usual in Miss Barrett's room at Wimpole Street on April 6 between 3pm and 5:45pm, according to Browning's careful note keeping. At that meeting the discussion turned to dueling, probably because there was a trial going on in London at the time regarding a duel. Browning apparently approved of the practice. Miss Barrett did not. Let the games begin:

"...did I flatter you and say that you were right yesterday? Indeed I thought you were as wrong as possible..wonderfully wrong on such a subject, for YOU..who, only a day or two before, seemed so free from conventional free!--You would abolish the punishment of death too..& put away wars, I am sure! But honorable men are bound to keep their honours clean at the expense of so much gunpowder & so much risk of life..that must be, ought to be,..let judicial deaths & military glory be abolished ever so! For my part, I set all Christian principle aside, (although if it were carried out..& principle is nothing unless carried would not mean cowardice but magnanimity) but I set it aside & go on the bare social rational ground...and I do advisedly declare to you that I cannot conceive of any possible combination of circumstances which could..I will not say justify, but even excuse, an honorable man's having recourse to the duellist's pistol, either on his own account or another's. Not only it seems to me horribly wrong..but absurdly wrong, it seems to me. a matter of pure reason..the Parisian method of taking aim & blowing off a man's head for the sins of his tongue, I do take to have a sort of judicial advantage over the Englishman's six paces...throwing the dice for his life or another man's, because wounded by that man in his honour. His honour! Who believes in such an honor..liable to make amends, & capable of such recovery! YOU cannot, I think--in the secret of your mind, Or if you, who are a teacher of the world...poor world--it is more desperately wrong than I thought.

A man calls you a liar in an assembly of other men. Because he is a calumniator, & on that very account, a worse man than you, ask him to go down with you on the only ground on which you two are equals..the dueling ground,..& with pistols of the same length & friends numerically equal on each side, play at lives with him, both mortal men that you are. If it was proposed to you to play at real dice for the ratification or non-ratification of his calumny, the proposition would be laughed to scorn..& yet the chance (as chance) seems much the same,..& the death is an exterior circumstance which cannot be imagined to have much virtue. At best, what do you prove by your duel?..that your calumniator, though a calumniator, is not a coward in the vulgar sense..& that yourself, though you may still be a liar ten times over, are not a coward either!--'Here be proofs.'

And as to the custom of dueling preventing insults..why you say that a man of honour should not go out with an unworthy adversary. Now supposing a man to be withheld from insult & calumny, just by the fear of being shot..who is more unworthy than such a man? Therefore you conclude irrationally, illogically, that the system operate beyond the limits of its operations.--Oh!--I shall write as quarrelsome letters as I choose. You are wrong, I know and feel, when you advocate the pitiful resources of this corrupt social life,..& if you are wrong, how are we to get right, we all who look to you for teaching. Are you afraid too of being taken for a coward? or would you excuse that sort of fear..that cowardice of cowardice, in other men? For me, I value your honour, just as you do..more than your life..of the two things: but the madness of this foolishness is so clear to my eyes, that instead of opening the door for you and keeping your secret...I would just call in the police, though you were to throw me out of the window afterwards. So, with that beautiful vision of domestic felicity, (which Mrs. Jameson would leap up to see!) I shall end my letter--isn't it a letter worth thanking for?

Ever dearest, do YOU promise me that you will never be provoked into such an act--never?...So promise and vow. And I will 'flatter' you in return in the lawful way...for you will 'make me happy' far!"

Wow! I love that letter. She had a good and proper vent. Her logic is impeccable and her anger is palpable. Sarcasm and wit, a deadly combination. I love the fact that she would call the police in on him if he duelled. The notion that she holds him up as a teacher of the world and that she despairs for the world to have such a teacher is a fantastic metaphor. She does not spare him and perhaps herself by this strong criticism.
In the meantime, Browning's letter arrives in Wimpole street without a care in the world. He is correcting his proofs and incorporating her corrections and thinking how wonderful his Miss Barrett is for correcting his proofs:

"What am I to say next, my Ba? When I write my best and send 'grateful' to you--you send my proof back, 'grateful (h)'--Then I must do and say what you hate..for I am one entire gratitude to you, God knows!"

But already she is worried that she has gone too far and sends off another letter:

"In my letter this morning......I was amused at myself yesterday, after the first movement, for liking to hear you say that 'dry biscuits satisfied' you--because afterall, I should not be easy to see you living on dry biscuits..Ceres & Bacchus forbid!...every variety of  'Epicuri de grege porcus [a pig from Epicurus' herd],' I have a sort of indisposition to..even as the animal itself (pork of nature & the kitchen) I avoid like a Jewish woman. Do you smile? And did I half (or whole) make you angry this morning through being so didactic & detestable? Will you challenge me to six paces at Chalk Farm, & will you 'take aim' this time & put an end to every sort of pretence in me to other approaches between us two? Tell me if you are angry, dearest! I ask you to tell me if you felt (for the time even) vexed with me..I want to know..I NEED to know....
So I spoke my mind--& you are vexed with me which I feel in the air. May God bless you dearest, dearest! Forgive, as best you can, best, your Ba"

How wonderfully womanly of her. She has strong opinions and she gives vent to them and then fears the consequences. What will Browning's response be? He can be pretty hot headed. Is she feeling the air correctly? Will this be the end of the affair? We know that it is not--but she doesn't. Browning is pretty good at cooling her off. Will he give in and admit that he is wrong or will he argue the point? Stay tuned.....

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