Saturday, August 11, 2012

August 11

Since our poets are having a private conversation on August 11, 1846, let's scoot back to August 11, 1845 and have a look at a rather chatty letter from Browning. He begins by discussing the flowers he sent her--without a card--a few days before:

"How good you are to the smallest thing I try and do—(to show I would please you for an instant if I could, rather than from any hope such poor efforts as I am restricted to, can please you or ought.) And that you should care for the note that was not there!—But I was surprised by the summons to seal and deliver, since time and the carrier were peremptory—and so, I dared divine, almost, I should hear from you by our mid-day post—which happened—and the answer to that, you received on Friday night, did you not? I had to go to Holborn, of all places,—not to pluck strawberries in the Bishop's Garden like Richard Crouchback, but to get a book—and there I carried my note, thinking to expedite its delivery: this notelet of yours, quite as little in its kind as my blue flowers,—this came last evening—and here are my thanks, dear E.B.B.—dear friend.
In the former note there is a phrase I must not forget to call on you to account for—that where it confesses to having done 'some work—only nothing worth speaking of.' Just see,—will you be first and only compact-breaker? Nor misunderstand me here, please, ... as I said, I am quite rejoiced that you go out now, 'walk about' now, and put off the writing that will follow thrice as abundantly, all because of the stopping to gather strength ... so I want no new word, not to say poem, not to say the romance-poem—let the 'finches in the shrubberies grow restless in the dark'—I am inside with the lights and music: but what is done, is done, pas vrai [not true]? And 'worth' is, dear my friend, pardon me, not in your arbitration quite."

He does have a point here. She does not share her work with him. He reads her older works but she seldom shares new work with him. All of the focus in this correspondence is on his work. Who is wooing who here?

"Let me tell you an odd thing that happened at Chorley's the other night. I must have mentioned to you that I forget my own verses so surely after they are once on paper, that I ought, without affectation, to mend them infinitely better, able as I am to bring fresh eyes to bear on them—(when I say 'once on paper' that is just what I mean and no more, for after the sad revising begins they do leave their mark, distinctly or less so according to circumstances). Well, Miss Cushman, the new American actress (clever and truthful-looking) was talking of a new novel by the Dane Andersen [Hans Christian], he of the 'Improvisatore,' which will reach us, it should seem, in translation, viâ America—she had looked over two or three proofs of the work in the press, and Chorley was anxious to know something about its character. The title, she said, was capital—'Only a Fiddler!'—and she enlarged on that word, 'Only,' and its significance, so put: and I quite agreed with her for several minutes, till first one reminiscence flitted to me, then another and at last I was obliged to stop my praises and say 'but, now I think of it, I seem to have written something with a similar title—nay, a play, I believe—yes, and in five acts—'Only an Actress'—and from that time, some two years or more ago to this, I have been every way relieved of it'!—And when I got home, next morning, I made a dark pocket in my russet horror of a portfolio give up its dead, and there fronted me 'Only a Player-girl' (the real title) and the sayings and doings of her, and the others—such others! So I made haste and just tore out one sample-page, being Scene the First, and sent it to our friend as earnest and proof I had not been purely dreaming, as might seem to be the case. And what makes me recall it now is, that it was Russian, and about a fair on the Neva, and booths and droshkies and fish-pies and so forth, with the Palaces in the back ground. And in Chorley's Athenæum of yesterday you may read a paper of very simple moony stuff about the death of Alexander, and that Sir James Wylie I have seen at St. Petersburg (where he chose to mistake me for an Italian—'M. l'Italien' he said another time, looking up from his cards).... So I think to tell you."

Sounds kind of interesting in a Russian kind of way. But the thing that interests me here is that he got home 'next morning'. He's out drinking all night again! And then he comes home and writes letters. And a very chatty letter it is too.

"Now I may leave off—I shall see you start, on Tuesday—hear perhaps something definite about your travelling."

He is referring here to the possibility that Miss Barrett might be permitted to go to Italy at the behest of her doctors. But more on that in later letters. Next he comments on reading George Sand's novel 'Consuelo':

"Do you know, 'Consuelo' wearies me—oh, wearies—and the fourth volume I have all but stopped at—there lie the three following, but who cares about Consuelo after that horrible evening with the Venetian scamp, (where he bullies her, and it does answer, after all she says) as we say? And Albert wearies too—it seems all false, all writing—not the first part, though. And what easy work these novelists have of it! a Dramatic poet has to make you love or admire his men and women,—they must do and say all that you are to see and hear—really do it in your face, say it in your ears, and it is wholly for you, in your power, to name, characterize and so praise or blame, what is so said and done ... if you don't perceive of yourself, there is no standing by, for the Author, and telling you. But with these novelists, a scrape of the pen—out blurting of a phrase, and the miracle is achieved—'Consuelo possessed to perfection this and the other gift'—what would you more? Or, to leave dear George Sand, pray think of Bulwer's beginning a 'character' by informing you that Ione, or somebody in 'Pompeii,' 'was endowed with perfect genius'—'genius'! What though the obliging informer might write his fingers off before he gave the pitifullest proof that the poorest spark of that same, that genius, had ever visited him? Ione has it 'perfectly'—perfectly—and that is enough! Zeus with the scales? with the false weights!"

I think he really has been drinking. He is in a huff about the difficult lot of poets who have to think of words that run in a rhythm and a rhyme and describe things at the same time! He should consider lowering himself to the rung of prose writer and be a wealthy novelist rather than a penniless poet. And I don't think he did himself any favors criticising Miss Barrett's literary heroine: George Sand is Miss Barrett's idol.

"And now—till Tuesday good-bye, and be willing to get well as (letting me send porter instead of flowers—and beefsteaks too!) soon as may be! and may God bless you, ever dear friend."

Miss Barrett in the mean time responds to his previous letter:

"But if it 'hurts' you to read and write ever so little, why should I be asked to write ... for instance ... 'before Tuesday?' And I did mean to say before to-day, that I wish you never would write to me when you are not quite well, as once or twice you have done if not much oftener; because there is not a necessity, ... and I do not choose that there should ever be, or seem a necessity, ... do you understand? And as a matter of personal preference, it is natural for me to like the silence that does not hurt you, better than the speech that does. And so, remember.
And talking of what may 'hurt' you and me, you would smile, as I have often done in the midst of my vexation, if you knew the persecution I have been subjected to by the people who call themselves (lucus a non lucendo*) 'the faculty,' and set themselves against the exercise of other people's faculties, as a sure way to death and destruction. The modesty and simplicity with which one's physicians tell one not to think or feel, just as they would tell one not to walk out in the dew, would be quite amusing, if it were not too tryingly stupid sometimes. I had a doctor once who thought he had done everything because he had carried the inkstand out of the room—'Now,' he said, 'you will have such a pulse to-morrow.' He gravely thought poetry a sort of disease—a sort of fungus of the brain—and held as a serious opinion, that nobody could be properly well who exercised it as an art—which was true (he maintained) even of men—he had studied the physiology of poets, 'quotha'—but that for women, it was a mortal malady and incompatible with any common show of health under any circumstances. And then came the damnatory clause in his experience ... that he had never known 'a system' approaching mine in 'excitability' ... except Miss Garrow's ... a young lady who wrote verses for Lady Blessington's annuals ... and who was the only other female rhymer he had had the misfortune of attending. And she was to die in two years, though she was dancing quadrilles then (and has lived to do the same by the polka), and I, of course, much sooner, if I did not ponder these things, and amend my ways, and take to reading 'a course of history'!! Indeed I do not exaggerate. And just so, for a long while I was persecuted and pestered ... vexed thoroughly sometimes ... my own family, instructed to sing the burden out all day long—until the time when the subject was suddenly changed by my heart being broken by that great stone that fell out of Heaven. Afterwards I was let do anything I could best ... which was very little, until last year—and the working, last year, did much for me in giving me stronger roots down into life, ... much. But think of that absurd reasoning that went before!—the niaiserie [silliness] of it! For, granting all the premises all round, it is not the utterance of a thought that can hurt anybody; while only the utterance is dependent on the will; and so, what can the taking away of an inkstand do? Those physicians are such metaphysicians! It's curious to listen to them. And it's wise to leave off listening: though I have met with excessive kindness among them, ... and do not refer to Dr. Chambers in any of this, of course."

Isn't that fascinating? Take away the one thing a person loves to facilitate them becoming less nervous. Yes, brilliant. But I must observe that despite all the brilliant science in 21st Century medicine there are still physicians who have crazy ideas about the origin and treatment of illness.

"I am very glad you went to Chelsea—and it seemed finer afterwards, on purpose to make room for the divine philosophy. Which reminds me (the going to Chelsea) that my brother Henry confessed to me yesterday, with shame and confusion of face, to having mistaken and taken your umbrella for another belonging to a cousin of ours then in the house. He saw you ... without conjecturing, just at the moment, who you were. Do you conjecture sometimes that I live all alone here like Mariana in the moated Grange? It is not quite so—: but where there are many, as with us, every one is apt to follow his own devices—and my father is out all day and my brothers and sisters are in and out, and with too large a public of noisy friends for me to bear, ... and I see them only at certain hours, ... except, of course, my sisters. And then as you have 'a reputation' and are opined to talk generally in blank verse, it is not likely that there should be much irreverent rushing into this room when you are known to be in it.
The flowers are ... so beautiful! Indeed it was wrong, though, to send me the last. It was not just to the lawful possessors and enjoyers of them. That it was kind to me I do not forget.
You are too teachable a pupil in the art of obliterating—and omne ignotum pro terrifico [the unknown is ever terrifying]... and therefore I won't frighten you by walking to meet you for fear of being frightened myself.
So good-bye until Tuesday. I ought not to make you read all this, I know, whether you like to read it or not: and I ought not to have written it, having no better reason than because I like to write on and on. You have better reasons for thinking me very weak—and I, too good ones for not being able to reproach you for that natural and necessary opinion.

Remember that he scratched out what he really wanted to say in his previous letter, making the point that he was not permitted to write what he really wanted to, despite her appeal to him to always tell her the truth. Here she mildly teazes him that she is frightened at what he might do if they met. They are teetering on the brink....

*"From late 4th-century grammarian Honoratus Maurus, who sought to mock implausible word origins such as those proposed by Priscian. A pun based on the word lucus (dark grove) having a similar appearance to the verb lucere (to shine), arguing that the former word is derived from the latter word because of a lack of light in wooded groves. Often used as an example of absurd etymoloy." (From Wiki) In other words, an aburdity.

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