Thursday, May 24, 2012

May 24

May 24, 1845 brought forth one letter each from our poets. What went before we will never entirely know. What we do know is that Miss Barrett saw Browning for the first time in her room at Wimpole Street on May 20, 1845. Based on the initial letters of thanks from Browning and counter-thanks from Miss Barrett everything seemed to have been pleasant and unremarkable. Neither of the initial reactions seems out of the ordinary when compared to previous letters. And yet, there is a missing letter. Based on the letter that follows and many subsequent letters that refer back to it, there was a letter sent by Browning to Miss Barrett which rocked her world. This is her response to the missing letter:

"I intended to write to you last night and this morning, and could not,—you do not know what pain you give me in speaking so wildly. And if I disobey you, my dear friend, in speaking, (I for my part) of your wild speaking, I do it, not to displease you, but to be in my own eyes, and before God, a little more worthy, or less unworthy, of a generosity from which I recoil by instinct and at the first glance, yet conclusively; and because my silence would be the most disloyal of all means of expression, in reference to it. Listen to me then in this. You have said some intemperate things ... fancies,—which you will not say over again, nor unsay, but forget at once, and for ever, having said at all; and which (so) will die out between you and me alone, like a misprint between you and the printer. And this you will do for my sake who am your friend (and you have none truer)—and this I ask, because it is a condition necessary to our future liberty of intercourse. You remember—surely you do—that I am in the most exceptional of positions; and that, just because of it, I am able to receive you as I did on Tuesday; and that, for me to listen to 'unconscious exaggerations,' is as unbecoming to the humilities of my position, as unpropitious (which is of more consequence) to the prosperities of yours. Now, if there should be one word of answer attempted to this; or of reference; I must not ... I will not see you again—and you will justify me later in your heart. So for my sake you will not say it—I think you will not—and spare me the sadness of having to break through an intercourse just as it is promising pleasure to me; to me who have so many sadnesses and so few pleasures. You will!—and I need not be uneasy—and I shall owe you that tranquillity, as one gift of many. For, that I have much to receive from you in all the free gifts of thinking, teaching, master-spirits, ... that, I know!—it is my own praise that I appreciate you, as none can more. Your influence and help in poetry will be full of good and gladness to me—for with many to love me in this house, there is no one to judge me ... now. Your friendship and sympathy will be dear and precious to me all my life, if you indeed leave them with me so long or so little. Your mistakes in me ... which I cannot mistake (—and which have humbled me by too much honouring—) I put away gently, and with grateful tears in my eyes; because all that hail will beat down and spoil crowns, as well as 'blossoms.'

If I put off next Tuesday to the week after—I mean your visit,—shall you care much? For the relations I named to you, are to be in London next week; and I am to see one of my aunts whom I love, and have not met since my great affliction—and it will all seem to come over again, and I shall be out of spirits and nerves. On Tuesday week you can bring a tomahawk and do the criticism, and I shall try to have my courage ready for it—Oh, you will do me so much good—and Mr. Kenyon calls me 'docile' sometimes I assure you; when he wants to flatter me out of being obstinate—and in good earnest, I believe I shall do everything you tell me. The 'Prometheus' is done—but the monodrama is where it was—and the novel, not at all. But I think of some half promises half given, about something I read for 'Saul'—and the 'Flight of the Duchess'—where is she?

You are not displeased with me? no, that would be hail and lightning together—I do not write as I might, of some words of yours—but you know that I am not a stone, even if silent like one. And if in the unsilence, I have said one word to vex you, pity me for having had to say it—and for the rest, may God bless you far beyond the reach of vexation from my words or my deeds! Your friend in grateful regard, E.B.B."

One line that stands out to me, "..for me to listen to 'unconscious exaggerations,' is as unbecoming to the humilities of my position, as unpropitious (which is of more consequence) to the prosperities of yours." To the end of the courtship this is a reoccurring theme: that she will harm his life and prospects. She then escapes from the agony of the first paragraph into her second paragraph about the poetry just as she escaped from all of her life, into her poetry. And of course she never says that she does not love him. She makes it clear that she does when she asks, "You are not displeased with me?" It is almost as though she is pleased that he does have this affection for her but she just doesn't want him to say it out loud, 'you may love me, please do love me, but don't mention it because nothing can come of it and have 'pity' on be because it is too painful to have to discuss; let's talk about poetry instead.'

So how will Browning respond? Well, he responds immediately, the speed at which this letter was written must have bent his nib. This long paragraph of a letter seems to be a rambling emptying of his cluttered mind as he tries to work out the correct thing to say as he goes along:

"Don't you remember I told you, once on a time that you 'knew nothing of me'? whereat you demurred—but I meant what I said, and knew it was so. To be grand in a simile, for every poor speck of a Vesuvius or a Stromboli in my microcosm there are huge layers of ice and pits of black cold water—and I make the most of my two or three fire-eyes, because I know by experience, alas, how these tend to extinction—and the ice grows and grows—still this last is true part of me, most characteristic part, best part perhaps, and I disown nothing—only,—when you talked of 'knowing me'! Still, I am utterly unused, of these late years particularly, to dream of communicating anything about that to another person (all my writings are purely dramatic as I am always anxious to say) that when I make never so little an attempt, no wonder if I bungle notably—'language,' too is an organ that never studded this heavy heavy head of mine. Will you not think me very brutal if I tell you I could almost smile at your misapprehension of what I meant to write?—Yet I will tell you, because it will undo the bad effect of my thoughtlessness, and at the same time exemplify the point I have all along been honestly earnest to set you right upon ... my real inferiority to you; just that and no more. I wrote to you, in an unwise moment, on the spur of being again 'thanked,' and, unwisely writing just as if thinking to myself, said what must have looked absurd enough as seen apart from the horrible counterbalancing never-to-be-written rest of me—by the side of which, could it be written and put before you, my note would sink to its proper and relative place, and become a mere 'thank you' for your good opinion—which I assure you is far too generous—for I really believe you to be my superior in many respects, and feel uncomfortable till you see that, too—since I hope for your sympathy and assistance, and 'frankness is everything in such a case.' I do assure you, that had you read my note, only having 'known' so much of me as is implied in having inspected, for instance, the contents, merely, of that fatal and often-referred-to 'portfolio' there (Dii meliora piis!), you would see in it, (the note not the portfolio) the blandest utterance ever mild gentleman gave birth to. But I forgot that one may make too much noise in a silent place by playing the few notes on the 'ear-piercing fife' which in Othello's regimental band might have been thumped into decent subordination by his 'spirit-stirring drum'—to say nothing of gong and ophicleide. Will you forgive me, on promise to remember for the future, and be more considerate? Not that you must too much despise me, neither; nor, of all things, apprehend I am attitudinizing à la Byron, and giving you to understand unutterable somethings, longings for Lethe and all that—far from it! I never committed murders, and sleep the soundest of sleeps—but 'the heart is desperately wicked,' that is true, and though I dare not say 'I know' mine, yet I have had signal opportunities, I who began life from the beginning, and can forget nothing (but names, and the date of the battle of Waterloo), and have known good and wicked men and women, gentle and simple, shaking hands with Edmund Kean and Father Mathew, you and—Ottima! Then, I had a certain faculty of self-consciousness, years and years ago, at which John Mill wondered, and which ought to be improved by this time, if constant use helps at all—and, meaning, on the whole, to be a Poet, if not the Poet ... for I am vain and ambitious some nights,—I do myself justice, and dare call things by their names to myself, and say boldly, this I love, this I hate, this I would do, this I would not do, under all kinds of circumstances,—and talking (thinking) in this style to myself, and beginning, however tremblingly, in spite of conviction, to write in this style for myself—on the top of the desk which contains my 'Songs of the Poets—no. i M.P.', I wrote,—what you now forgive, I know! Because I am, from my heart, sorry that by a foolish fit of inconsideration I should have given pain for a minute to you, towards whom, on every account, I would rather soften and 'sleeken every word as to a bird' ... (and, not such a bird as my black self that go screeching about the world for 'dead horse'—corvus (picus)—mirandola!) I, too, who have been at such pains to acquire the reputation I enjoy in the world,—(ask Mr. Kenyon,) and who dine, and wine, and dance and enhance the company's pleasure till they make me ill and I keep house, as of late: Mr. Kenyon, (for I only quote where you may verify if you please) he says my common sense strikes him, and its contrast with my muddy metaphysical poetry! And so it shall strike you—for though I am glad that, since you did misunderstand me, you said so, and have given me an opportunity of doing by another way what I wished to do in that,—yet, if you had not alluded to my writing, as I meant you should not, you would have certainly understood something of its drift when you found me next Tuesday precisely the same quiet (no, for I feel I speak too loudly, in spite of your kind disclaimer, but—) the same mild man-about-town you were gracious to, the other morning—for, indeed, my own way of worldly life is marked out long ago, as precisely as yours can be, and I am set going with a hand, winker-wise, on each side of my head, and a directing finger before my eyes, to say nothing of an instinctive dread I have that a certain whip-lash is vibrating somewhere in the neighbourhood in playful readiness! So 'I hope here be proofs,' Dogberry's satisfaction that, first, I am but a very poor creature compared to you and entitled by my wants to look up to you,—all I meant to say from the first of the first—and that, next, I shall be too much punished if, for this piece of mere inconsideration, you deprive me, more or less, or sooner or later, of the pleasure of seeing you,—a little over boisterous gratitude for which, perhaps, caused all the mischief! The reasons you give for deferring my visits next week are too cogent for me to dispute—that is too true—and, being now and henceforward 'on my good behaviour,' I will at once cheerfully submit to them, if needs must—but should your mere kindness and forethought, as I half suspect, have induced you to take such a step, you will now smile with me, at this new and very unnecessary addition to the 'fears of me' I have got so triumphantly over in your case! Wise man, was I not, to clench my first favourable impression so adroitly ... like a recent Cambridge worthy, my sister heard of; who, being on his theological (or rather, scripture-historical) examination, was asked by the Tutor, who wished to let him off easily, 'who was the first King of Israel?'—'Saul' answered the trembling youth. 'Good!' nodded approvingly the Tutor. 'Otherwise called Paul,' subjoined the youth in his elation! Now I have begged pardon, and blushingly assured you that was only a slip of the tongue, and that I did really mean all the while, (Paul or no Paul), the veritable son of Kish, he that owned the asses, and found listening to the harp the best of all things for an evil spirit! Pray write me a line to say, 'Oh ... if that's all!' and remember me for good (which is very compatible with a moment's stupidity) and let me not for one fault, (and that the only one that shall be), lose any pleasure ... for your friendship I am sure I have not lost—God bless you, my dear friend!

R. Browning.

And by the way, will it not be better, as co-operating with you more effectually in your kind promise to forget the 'printer's error' in my blotted proof, to send me back that same 'proof,' if you have not inflicted proper and summary justice on it? When Mephistopheles last came to see us in this world outside here, he counselled sundry of us 'never to write a letter,—and never to burn one'—do you know that? But I never mind what I am told! Seriously, I am ashamed.... I shall next ask a servant for my boots in the 'high fantastical' style of my own 'Luria.' "

Normally in this blog I try to edit the letters to make them a bit more user friendly for the modern reader. But in this case, I thought the effect of the whole was too wonderful to lose. Browning starts the letter almost defiantly with an air of 'you silly woman, you completely misunderstood my fire and ice' and then he tries to explain that he wrote the letter in a dramatic persona as though he was writing or thinking to himself. He backs down a bit and apologizes for his thoughtlessness and then he laughs at her misapprehension at what he wrote. He is all over the map trying to explain that letter. The best line he got off was, "But I forgot that one may make too much noise in a silent place by playing the few notes on the 'ear-piercing fife'...," however he muffed it with too detailed an explanation of it's origin in his mind. Calling his original letter 'over boisterous gratitude' seems the most suitable explanation which he finally arrives at late, after running the gamut of every other explanation he can think of. I think based on Miss Barrett's letter of the morning that he has nothing to fear. The visits will continue, if a bit less boisterously.

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