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.