Wednesday, July 18, 2012

July 18

We are going to peep at a letter written by Miss Barrett to Browning July 18, 1845. This letter was written in her 'we are just friends' stage. She is responding to his ongoing compliments about her kindness to his poetry. An intriguing element of this letter is the insight into her relationship with the Rev. George Barrett Hunter. She does not mention his name here, but she quotes a letter that certainly smells of his attempts at wooing:

"I suppose nobody is ever expected to acknowledge his or her 'besetting sin'—it would be unnatural—and therefore you will not be surprised to hear me deny the one imputed to me for mine. I deny it quite and directly. And if my denial goes for nothing, which is but reasonable, I might call in a great cloud of witnesses, ... a thundercloud, ... (talking of storms!) and even seek no further than this table for a first witness; this letter, I had yesterday, which calls me ... let me see how many hard names ... 'unbending,' ... 'disdainful,' ... 'cold hearted,' ... 'arrogant,' ... yes, 'arrogant, as women always are when men grow humble' ... there's a charge against all possible and probable petticoats beyond mine and through it! Not that either they or mine deserve the charge—we do not; to the lowest hem of us! for I don't pass to the other extreme, mind, and adopt besetting sins 'over the way' and in antithesis. It's an undeserved charge, and unprovoked! and in fact, the very flower of self-love self-tormented into ill temper; and shall remain unanswered, for me, ... and should, ... even if I could write mortal epigrams, as your Lamia speaks them. Only it serves to help my assertion that people in general who know something of me, my dear friend, are not inclined to agree with you in particular, about my having an 'over-pleasure in pleasing,' for a besetting sin. If you had spoken of my sister Henrietta indeed, you would have been right—so right! but for me, alas, my sins are not half as amiable, nor given to lean to virtue's side with half such a grace. And then I have a pretension to speak the truth like a Roman, even in matters of literature, where Mr. Kenyon says falseness is a fashion—and really and honestly I should not be afraid ... I should have no reason to be afraid, ... if all the notes and letters written by my hand for years and years about presentation copies of poems and other sorts of books were brought together and 'conferred,' as they say of manuscripts, before my face—I should not shrink and be ashamed. Not that I always tell the truth as I see it—but I never do speak falsely with intention and consciousness—never—and I do not find that people of letters are sooner offended than others are, by the truth told in gentleness;—I do not remember to have offended anyone in this relation, and by these means. Well!—but from me to you; it is all different, you know—you must know how different it is."

The Rev. Hunter does not spare the compliments! Her description of him as 'the very flower of self-love self-tormented into ill temper' is classic. As an aside, despite Hunter's rough temper, and not-so-winning ways, she regularly asked her sister about him for many years after she was married and living in Italy, until his death in 1856. As with her father, once she loved someone it was hard for her to not love that someone, despite their cruelty and ill temper.

She continues to explain that she is not trying to please him in praising his poems:

"I can tell you truly what I think of this thing and of that thing in your 'Duchess'—but I must of a necessity hesitate and fall into misgiving of the adequacy of my truth, so called. To judge at all of a work of yours, I must look up to it, and far up—because whatever faculty I have is included in your faculty, and with a great rim all round it besides! And thus, it is not at all from an over-pleasure in pleasing you, not at all from an inclination to depreciate myself, that I speak and feel as I do and must on some occasions; it is simply the consequence of a true comprehension of you and of me—and apart from it, I should not be abler, I think, but less able, to assist you in anything. I do wish you would consider all this reasonably, and understand it as a third person would in a moment, and consent not to spoil the real pleasure I have and am about to have in your poetry, by nailing me up into a false position with your gold-headed nails of chivalry, which won't hold to the wall through this summer. Now you will not answer this?—you will only understand it and me—and that I am not servile but sincere, but earnest, but meaning what I say—and when I say I am afraid, you will believe that I am afraid; and when I say I have misgivings, you will believe that I have misgivings—you will trust me so far, and give me liberty to breathe and feel naturally ... according to my own nature. Probably, or certainly rather, I have one advantage over you, ... one, of which women are not fond of boasting—that of being older by years—for the 'Essay on Mind,' which was the first poem published by me (and rather more printed than published after all), the work of my earliest youth, half childhood, half womanhood, was published in 1826 I see. And if I told Mr. Kenyon not to let you see that book, it was not for the date, but because Coleridge's daughter was right in calling it a mere 'girl's exercise'; because it is just that and no more, ... no expression whatever of my nature as it ever was, ... pedantic, and in some things pert, ... and such as altogether, and to do myself justice (which I would fain do of course), I was not in my whole life. Bad books are never like their writers, you know—and those under-age books are generally bad. Also I have found it hard work to get into expression, though I began rhyming from my very infancy, much as you did (and this, with no sympathy near to me—I have had to do without sympathy in the full sense—), and even in my 'Seraphim' days, my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth,—from leading so conventual recluse a life, perhaps—and all my better poems were written last year, the very best thing to come, if there should be any life or courage to come; I scarcely know. Sometimes—it is the real truth—I have haste to be done with it all. It is the real truth; however to say so may be an ungrateful return for your kind and generous words, ... which I do feel gratefully, let me otherwise feel as I will, ... or must. But then you know you are liable to such prodigious mistakes about besetting sins and even besetting virtues—to such a set of small delusions, that are sure to break one by one, like other bubbles, as you draw in your breath, ... as I see by the law of my own star, my own particular star, the star I was born under, the star Wormwood, ... on the opposite side of the heavens from the constellations of 'the Lyre and the Crown.' In the meantime, it is difficult to thank you, or not to thank you, for all your kindnesses—αλγος δε σιγαν [to suffer pain in silence]. Only Mrs. Jameson told me of Lady Byron's saying 'that she knows she is burnt every day in effigy by half the world, but that the effigy is so unlike herself as to be inoffensive to her,' and just so, or rather just in the converse of so, is it with me and your kindnesses. They are meant for quite another than I, and are too far to be so near. The comfort is ... in seeing you throw all those ducats out of the window, (and how many ducats go in a figure to a 'dozen Duchesses,' it is profane to calculate) the comfort is that you will not be the poorer for it in the end; since the people beneath, are honest enough to push them back under the door. Rather a bleak comfort and occupation though!—and you may find better work for your friends, who are (some of them) weary even unto death of the uses of this life. And now, you who are generous, be generous, and take no notice of all this. I speak of myself, not of you so there is nothing for you to contradict or discuss—and if there were, you would be really kind and give me my way in it. Also you may take courage; for I promise not to vex you by thanking you against your will,—more than may be helped.

The reference to the 'dozen Duchesses' refers to Browning's declaration that he would burn a dozen of his poems if the fire would warm her fingers. This highly personal, self-critical, almost painful letter reads in part like a demand to be taken seriously. But there is more to it than that, whether she is conscious of it or not. Her dismissal of the Rev. Hunter's criticism, followed by the lengthy self revelation to Browning was certainly an opening up of her inner-most self. This revelation to Browning of her frustration at her reclusive life, manifested in her dismissal of her own poetry and her 'haste to be done with it all' was not a continuation of her earlier mantra of 'let us just be friends.' This was an appeal. But since she has set strict restraints on how Browning can respond to her, he can only respond as a friend, what form can it take? This may be the first chink in her armour during this long wooing.

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