Monday, August 20, 2012

August 20

We have an interesting letter from Miss Barrett on August 20, 1845. She begins with a brief mention of the possibility that her father might send her to Malta for the winter followed by a longer discussion of translations she had accomplished and their 'editing' and 'correcting' by a Mr. Burges:

"Not a word of Malta! except from Mr. Kenyon who talked homilies of it last Sunday and wanted to speak them to Papa—but it would not do in any way—now especially—and in a little time there will be a decision for or against; and I am afraid of both ... which is a happy state of preparation. Did I not tell you that early in the summer I did some translations for Miss Thomson's 'Classical Album,' from Bion and Theocritus, and Nonnus the author of that large (not great) poem in some forty books of the 'Dionysiaca' ... and the paraphrases from Apuleius? Well—I had a letter from her the other day, full of compunction and ejaculation, and declaring the fact that Mr. Burges had been correcting all the proofs of the poems; leaving out and emending generally, according to his own particular idea of the pattern in the mount—is it not amusing? I have been wicked enough to write in reply that it is happy for her and all readers ... sua si bona norint [if they only knew their blessings]... if during some half hour which otherwise might have been dedicated by Mr. Burges to patting out the lights of Sophocles and his peers, he was satisfied with the humbler devastation of E.B.B. upon Nonnus. You know it is impossible to help being amused. This correcting is a mania with that man! And then I, who wrote what I did from the 'Dionysiaca,' with no respect for 'my author,' and an arbitrary will to 'put the case' of Bacchus and Ariadne as well as I could, for the sake of the art-illustrations, ... those subjects Miss Thomson sent me, ... and did it all with full liberty and persuasion of soul that nobody would think it worth while to compare English with Greek and refer me back to Nonnus and detect my wanderings from the text!! But the critic was not to be cheated so! And I do not doubt that he has set me all 'to rights' from beginning to end; and combed Ariadne's hair close to her cheeks for me. Have you known Nonnus, ... you who forget nothing? and have known everything, I think? For it is quite startling, I must tell you, quite startling and humiliating, to observe how you combine such large tracts of experience of outer and inner life, of books and men, of the world and the arts of it; curious knowledge as well as general knowledge ... and deep thinking as well as wide acquisition, ... and you, looking none the older for it all!—yes, and being besides a man of genius and working your faculty and not wasting yourself over a surface or away from an end. Dugald Stewart said that genius made naturally a lop-sided mind—did he not? He ought to have known you. And I who do ... a little ... (for I grow more loth than I was to assume the knowledge of you, my dear friend)—I do not mean to use that word 'humiliation' in the sense of having felt the thing myself in any painful way, ... because I never for a moment did, or could, you know,—never could ... never did ... except indeed when you have over praised me, which forced another personal feeling in. Otherwise it has always been quite pleasant to me to be 'startled and humiliated'—and more so perhaps than to be startled and exalted, if I might choose...."

She went from the humiliation of having her translations corrected to being humiliated by Browning's genius. How she praises this man. How can he not be madly in  love with this woman who thinks that he combines 'such large tracts of experience of outer and inner life, of books and men, of the world and the arts of it; curious knowledge as well as general knowledge...and deep thinking as well as wide acquisition....yes, and being besides a man of genius and working your faculty and not wasting yourself over a surface or away from an end?' Another woman might think him 'smart' or 'clever', but she is able to articulate her appreciation in a way that few others could.

"Only I did not mean to write all this, though you told me to write to you. But the rain which keeps one in, gives one an example of pouring on ... and you must endure as you can or will. Also ... as you have a friend with you 'from Italy' ... 'from Rome,' and commended me for my 'kindness and considerateness' in changing Tuesday to Friday ... (wasn't it?...) shall I still be more considerate and put off the visit-day to next week? mind, you let it be as you like it best to be—I mean, as is most convenient 'for the nonce' to you and your friend—because all days are equal, as to that matter of convenience, to your other friend of this ilk, EBB"

This letter, in which she praises Browning to the sky (but suggests putting off their meeting until the following week) gets a very odd response the same day:

Mauvaise, mauvaise, mauvaise, [bad, bad, bad] you know as I know, just as much, that your 'kindness and considerateness' consisted, not in putting off Tuesday for another day, but in caring for my coming at all; for my coming and being told at the door that you were engaged, and I might call another time! And you are not, not my 'other friend,' any more than this head of mine is my other head, seeing that I have got a violin which has a head too! All which, beware lest you get fully told in the letter I will write this evening, when I have done with my Romans—who are, it so happens, here at this minute; that is, have left the house for a few minutes with my sister—but are not 'with me,' as you seem to understand it,—in the house to stay. They were kind to me in Rome, (husband and wife), and I am bound to be of what use I may during their short stay. Let me lose no time in begging and praying you to cry 'hands off' to that dreadful Burgess; have not I got a ... but I will tell you to-night—or on Friday which is my day, please—Friday. Till when, pray believe me, with respect and esteem,
Your most obliged and disobliged at these blank endingswhat have I done? God bless you ever dearest friend."

Apparently there was something in the final paragraph of Miss Barrett's letter, 'the blank endings' which as disconcerted Browning to the extent that he asks 'what have I done?' and takes most of the letter to explain that his friends are nothing to him compared to her. And he obviously does not want to be put off to next week! He very carefully explains that it is a husband and wife. Perhaps he fears that she thinks he has another lady friend. But he also warns her about the editor 'Burgess'. More on him in the next letter.

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