Sunday, August 12, 2012

August 12

We shall have three letters to enjoy from August 12, 1846. We will allow Miss Barrett to go first:

"Shall you pass through this street to Mr Kenyon’s, this evening? I have been sitting here these five minutes, wondering. But no answer is possible now, & if I go to the window of the other room & look up & look down about half past five or a little later, it will be in vain perhaps. Just now I have heard from Mr Kenyon who cannot come today to drive with me though he may come to talk– He does not leave London, he says, so soon as he thought!– More’s the pity. Ah!– What unkind things one learns to write & meditate in this world, even of the dear Mr Kenyons in it!—I am ashamed– Instruct your guardian angel to cover me with the shadow of his wings-dearest!"

For the uninitiated, Trippy was a Miss Trepsack, a Creole (daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave) who was the companion of Papa Barrett's mother when she returned to England from Jamaica. She was a ward of the Barretts and apparently loved and coddled by all of them.

"Now I will tell you a curious thing which Trippy said to Arabel yesterday while you & I were together. Arabel was walking with her, & she was in one of her ill humours, poor Trippy, sighing & moaning over the wickedness of the people in Wimpole Street—she ‘should go & live at Ramsgate, she thought, as nobody paid her the right attention’—. That’s the intermittent groan, when she is out of humour, poor Trippy. 'And besides' said she, 'it is much better that I should not go to Wimpole Street at this time when there are so many secrets. Secrets indeed! You think that nobody can see & hear except yourselves, I suppose,—& there are two circumstances going on in the house, plain for any eyes to see! & those are considered secrets, I suppose'. 'Oh, Trippy'—interpolated Arabel .. 'you are always fancying secrets where there are none.'– 'Well, I dont fancy anything now! I know—just as you do–' —Something was said too about 'Ba’s going to Italy'. 'And, Trippy, do you think that she will go to Italy?'. 'Why there is only one way for her to go—but she may go that way. If she marries, she may go–' 'And you would not be surprised?'– 'I! not in the least– I am never surprised, because I always see things from the beginning– Nobody can hide anything from me'. After which fashion she smoothed the darkness till it smiled, & boasted herself back into a calmer mood– But just observe how people are talking & inferring!– It frightens me to think of it. Not that there is any danger from Trippy. She would as soon cut off her hand, as bring one of us into a difficulty, & me, the last. Only it would not do to tell her,—she must have it in her power to say “I did not know this”,—for reasons of the strongest. To occasion a schism between her & this house, would be to embitter the remainder of her days."

Miss E. Barrett was everyone's favorite. I love that conversation. I have heard those same sort of words from other elderly women. The world does not change although it does spin about quite a bit.

"Here is a letter from a lady in a remote district called Swineshead, who sends me lyrical specimens, & desires to know if this be Genius. She does not desire to publish,—at any rate not for an indefinite number of years,—but for her private & personal satisfaction, she would be glad to be informed whether she is a Sappho or George Sand or anything of that kind– What in the world is to be answered, now, to an application of that kind?– To meddle with a person’s opinion of himself or herself, (quite a private opinion) seems like meddling with his way of dressing, with her fashion of putting in pins—like saying you shall put your feet on a stool, or you shant eat pork—it is an interference with private rights, from which I really do shrink– Unfortunately too it is impossible to say what she wants to hear: I am in despair about it– When we are at Pisa we shall not hear these black stones crying after us any more perhaps– I shall listen, instead, to my talking bird & singing tree, & repose from the rest. How did you get home? And tell me of Mr Kenyon’s dinner! So nervous I am about Mr Kenyon, when you or I happen to be en rapport with him."

She is 'in despair' of what to tell an aspiring writer. I will bet she wrote a very sweet note in response. I find it difficult to believe that she would write back and say: I know George Sand and you, madam, are no George Sand.

"Not only I loved you yesterday, but even today I love you,—which is remarkable. Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow, what will you do? Is that an ‘offence’? Nay, but it is rather reasonable that when the hour strikes, the fairy-gold should turn back into leaves, & poor Cinderella find herself sitting in her old place among the ashes, just as she had touched the hand of the king’s son.
Dont think I mean anything by that, ever dearest—not so much as to teaze you—Robert!
I only love you today—that is, I love you & do nothing more. And the Fairy Tales are on the whole, I feel, the most available literature for illustration, whenever I think of loving you.
Your own Ba–"

I have to agree with her on that. This whole thing seems rather surreal. But what sort of mystical writing does Browning have for us today?

"I have been putting all the letters into rings—twenty together—and they look now as they should—'infinite treasure in a little room'—note, that they were so united and so ranged from the beginning, at least since I began to count by twenties—but the white tape I used (no red tape, thank you!) was vile in its operation,—the untying and retying, (so as to preserve a proper cross)—hard for clumsy fingers like mine:— these rings are perfect. How strange it will be to have no more letters! Of the foolishnesses that ever were uttered that speech of mine,—about your letters strewing the house,—was the most thoroughly perfect! Yet you have nothing to forgive in me, you say!"

If you look at the letter--preserved for all to see on the Baylor University website--you will see that Browning drew a little illustration of the letters tied with a ribbon with a cross in the middle like a Christmas gift. I cannot imagine what the 'rings' of letters look like. Sounds a bit industrial.

"Just now I took up a periodical and read a few lines of a paper on the charm that there is in a contrariety of tempers and tastes, for friends and lovers—and there followed platitudes in a string—the clever like the stupid, the grave choose the lively, and so forth. Now, unless the state of the liker and chooser is really considered by him as a misfortune,—what he would get rid of if he could in himself, so shall hardly desire to find in anotherexcept in this not very probable case, is there not implied by every such choice, an absolute despair of any higher one? The grave man says (or would if he knew himself)—'except on my particular grounds such a serious humour would be impossible and absurd .. and where can I find another to appreciate them? Better accept the lower state of ignorance that they exist even, and consequent gaity,—than a preposterous melancholy arising from no adequate cause'—and what man of genius would not associate with people of no talent at all, rather than the possessors of mere talent, who keep sufficiently near him, as they walk together, to give him annoyance at every step? Better go with Flush on his four legs, avowedly doglike, than with a monkey who will shuffle along on two for I don’t know how many yards. Now, for instance, is the writer of that wise notice of Landor in last week’s Athenæum, one whit nearer your sympathy in that precise matter, than somebody who never heard of Landor or supposed him to have usually written under the signature of L.E.L.?With the exception of a word or two about the silly abuse of Plato, and on the occasional unfairness of statement, is there one word right and reasonable?
Here am I letting the words scratch themselves one after another while my thought as usual goes quite another way. Perhaps my wits are resting because of the great alacrity they are to display at Mr Kenyon’s this evening .. I shall take care not to be first comer, nor last goer– Dearest, you are wrong in your fancy about my little caring whether he knows or does not– I see altogether with your eyes .. indeed, now that you engage to remove any suspicion of unkindness or mistrust which might attach to me in his thoughts, (all I ever apprehended for myself) there is no need to consider him at all– He can do no good nor harm. Did you ever receive such a letter? The dull morning shall excuse it—anything but the dull heart—for you fill it, however the heat may keep within, sometimes.
Bless you, Ba, my dearest, perfect love. Now I will begin thinking of you again—let me kiss you, my own!"

Yeah, he started in one direction and then lost the thread. He started in to make a point about loving someone superior to oneself and then he got distracted by trying to point out that she was smarter than a reviewer of Landor in the Athenæum the previous week. So, he dropped it and admitted that he was a lost. Good for him. No sense in wandering around in a fog all day. But Miss Barrett responds with an enthusiasm that she did not hold for the would-be Sappho in Swineshead:

"‘Did I ever receive such a letter’? Never—except from you– It is a question easily answered.
As to other questions, about the communion of contrarieties, I agree with you, thought for thought, in all your thinking about it—only adding one more reason to the reasons you point out … There is another reason at the bottom of all, I think—I cannot but think—: & it is, just, that, when women are chosen for wives, they are not chosen for companions—that when they are selected to be loved, it is quite apart from life—“man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart”. A German professor selects a woman who can merely stew prunes—not because stewing prunes & reading Proclus make a delightful harmony, but because he wants his prunes stewed for him & chooses to read Proclus by himself. A fulness of sympathy, a sharing of life, one with another, .. is scarcely ever looked for except in a narrow conventional sense. Men like to come home & find a blazing fire & a smiling face & an hour of relaxation. Their serious thoughts, & earnest aims in life, they like to keep on one side– And this is the carrying out of love & marriage almost everywhere in the world—& this, the degrading of women by both."

I read biography after biography about our poets (usually written by men) who talk about how much more brilliant Browning is than his poor simple sheltered wife. Well excuse me. She took his ramblings and turned them into coherent thoughts. She practically translated them into English. Read on, befuddled reader:

"For friendship .. why Like seeks Like in friendship very openly– To ‘have sympathies’ with a person, is a good banal current motive for friendship. Yet (for the minor points) a man with a deficiency of animal spirits may like the society of a man who can amuse him, & the amusing man may have pleasure again in the sense of using a faculty & conferring a benefit. It is happily possible to love down, & even across a chasm—or the world would be more loveless than it is– I have loved & still love people a thousand souls off—as you have & do, of course:—but to love them better on that account, would be strange & difficult.
Always I know, my beloved, that I am unworthy of your love in a hundred ways—yet I do hold fast my sense of advantage in one,— .. that, as far as I can see, I see after you .. understand you, divine you .. call you by your right name. Then it is something to be able to look at life itself as you look at it—(I quite sigh sometimes with satisfaction at that thought!) there will be neither hope nor regret away from your footsteps. Dearest—I feel to myself sometimes, ‘Do not move, do not speak—or the dream will vanish’! So fearfully like a dream, it is! Like a reflection in the water, of an actual old, old dream of my own, too, .. touching which, .. now silent voices used to say 'That romantic child'!"

This makes me think of the famous quote from Wordsworth when he learned of their marriage:

"Miss Barrett, I am pleased to learn, is so much recovered as to have taken herself a Husband. Her choice is a very able man, and I trust that it will be a happy union, not doubting that they will speak more intelligibly to each other than, notwithstanding their abilities, they have yet done to the public."

This is more obviously a slap at Browning than Miss Barrett. But as I often point out she reads and analyzes every word of his letters. Very little gets past her. She gets him as few others do. He apparently recognized this immediately. He often says to her in the letters after a particularly foggy passage: I expect you to figure out what I just said.

"What did you mean to say about my not believing in your nature .. in your feelings .. what did you & could you mean yesterday? Was it because of my speech about the ‘calm eyes’? Ah—you!– I did not think to make so impressive a speech when I made it .. for this is not the first time, Robert, you have quoted Hansard for it. Well! I shall not rise to explain after all. Only I do justice to the whole subject .. eyes inclusively .. “whatever you may think” as you said yesterday with ever such significance.
No—yes—now I will ask you one thing. Common eyes will carry an emotion of a soul—&, so, not be calm, of course. Calm ones I know, will carry the whole soul & float it up against yours, till it loses footing and That is a little of what I meant by the calm in the eyes,—& so I will ask you whether I could wrong by such meaning, any depth in the nature.
At this moment you are at Mr Kenyon’s—& you did not, I think, go up this street. Perhaps you will go home through it—but I shall not see—I cannot watch, being afraid of the over-watchers– May God bless you my own dearest! You have my heart with you as if it lay in your hand!– I told you once that I never could love (in this way of love) except upward very far & high—but you are not like me in it, I thank God,—since you can love me. Love me, dearest of all—do not tire. I am your very own Ba.

Apparently Browning objected to being described as calm of eye, perhaps thinking that it denotes a lack of depth of feeling. But for a nervous person like Miss Barrett having a calm eyed lover cannot be a bad thing.

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