Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 19

Miss Barrett has so many relatives staying at Wimpole Street (beyond her two sisters, five or six brothers, her father and innumerable servants) that Browning is having trouble dodging them when he comes to visit. Out of sight is out of mind is the watchword in the Barrett household. But all seemed to work out on the most recent visit as Miss Barrett reports July 19, 1846:

"Dearest, the leaf of yesterday was folded down quite smoothly & softly– A dinner party swept the thought of you out of people’s minds. Otherwise I was prepared to be a little afraid,—for my aunt said to Arabel, upon being dispensed with so cavalierly from this room, .. (said in the passage, Arabel told me, with a half-laugh) “Pray which of Ba’s lovers may this be?” So Arabel had to tell the name of the visitor. But the dinner party set all right, & this morning I was asked simply whether it had been an agreeable visit, & what you had written, & banalities after such a fashion. Oh, and I went out—remembering your desire .. was it not a desire, dearest, dearest? I went out, any way—but the wind blew, & I had to hold my veil against my mouth, doubled & trebled .. with as many folds, indeed, as Ajax’s shield .. to keep myself in breathing order. The wind always gives me a sort of strangling sensation, which is the effect, I suppose, of having weak lungs. So it was not a long walk, but I liked it because you seemed to be with me still,—& Arabel who walked with me, was “sure, without being told, that I had had a happy visit, just from my manner”. The wisest of interpreters, I called her, & pour cause."

This next passage has always fascinated me. I remember reading this letter when I was in college in (dare I say it?) 1986 and thinking that this is very true and I still think this is true. It is not to say that we do not love our families, but seldom are we connected on the soul level with our parents and siblings:

"Is it your opinion that the members of our own family, .. those who live with us always, .. know us best? They know us on the side we offer to them .. a bare profile .. or the head turned round to the ear—yes!—they do not, except by the merest chance, look into our eyes. They know us in a conventional way .. as far from God’s way of knowing us, as from the world’s– Mid-way, it is .. & the truest & most cordial & tender affection will not hinder this from being so partial a knowledge. Love! I love those at the present moment, .. who love me .. (& tenderly on both sides) .. but who are so far from understanding me, that I never think of speaking myself into their ears .. of trying to speak myself. It is wonderful, it is among the great mysteries of life, to observe how people can love one another in the dark, blindly .. loving without knowing. And, as a matter of general observation, if I sought to have a man or woman revealed to me in his or her innermost nature, I would not go to the family of the person in question—though I should learn there best, of course, about personal habits, & the social bearing of him or her. George Sand delighted me in one of her late works, where she says that the souls of bloodrelations seldom touch except at one or two points– Perfectly true, that is, I think—perfectly.
Remember how you used to say that I did not know you .. which was true in a measure .. yet I felt I knew you, & I did actually know you, in another larger measure. And if now you are not known to me altogether, it is my dulness which makes me unknowing——

But I know you—& I should be without excuse if ever I wronged you with a moment’s injustice—I do not think I ever could depreciate you for a moment,—that would not be possible. There are other sins against you (are they against you?) which bring their own punishment! You shall never be angry with me for those."

Think how this woman loves her father and especially her sister Arabel and how attached she is to them, but she realizes that they do not see her. I see this when I read her letters to her siblings. Her letters to Arabel are different from her letters to Henrietta and different than her letters to George. She relates to each of them on a different level, she always reaching to their level as she perceives it. But as to whether she really knows Browning, I think she is taking a huge leap of faith. She understands that he is a genius, she knows that he is a Christian, that he is a poet, but I would say at this point she does not know him. She knows that he is a sympathetic soul. She knows that she trusts him.

She ends with a Mr. Kenyon update:

"While I was writing, came Mr Kenyon. As usual he said that there was no use in his coming .. that you had taken his place, & so on. He was in high good humour, though, & spirits, & I did not mind much what he was pleased to say– More I minded, that he means “to stay in London all the summer” .. which I cant be glad of, .. though I was glad at his not persisting in going to Scotland against his own wishes. But he might like to go somewhere else—it would be a pleasure, that, in which I should sympathize—! the more shame for me!"

Browning, meanwhile, is missing his lady:

"Dearest Ba’s face of yesterday, with the smiles and perfect sweetness,—oh, the comfort it is to me thru’ this day of my especial heaviness! I don’t know when I have felt more stupid, and I seem to keep the closelier to you, Ba. Is that one of my felicities of compliment? I think if you were here I should lay my head on your bosom, my own beloved, and never raise it again. In your last letter, you speak of those who care less for you than for “a glass of claret”. There is something sublime,—at all events, astounding, in the position we occupy each of us,—I, and those less-carers,—standing in respect to each other so like England and Owhyhee—at which, they told me when I was a boy, I should be pretty sure to arrive, if I dug a hole just thro’ the earth, dropped to the centre and then, turning round, climbed straight up!
I wish, dearest, you would tell me precisely what you have written—all my affectionate pride in you rises at once when I think of your poetry, that is and that is to be– You dear, dear Ba, can you not write on my shoulder while my head lies as you permit?"

I suspect that she is writing her sonnet sequence. But I don't think she will be telling him about those poems. Isn't it interesting that she did not give him the sonnets until they had been married three years? Were they too personal to give to him? She never wanted to burden him. Did she feel that they would be a burden to him? Or was she simply too shy?
And isn't Browning getting very affectionate here? He seems quite happy that her uncles don't care for her. It is 'sublime' and 'astounding' that they stand in Owhyhee(!) and he stands with her in London. They need to get married before Browning blows a blood vessel.

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