Let's jump back to August 8, 1845 today. Keep in mind that for the last two months Browning had been sending letters in which he pointedly and repeatedly calls Miss Barrett 'dear friend' because she has insisted that the correspondence and visits must end if he attempts to be more than 'a friend'. He has been dropping hints of his affection, barely disguised, while she has happily edited his poems and talked rhythm, rhyme and told him what a genius he is. Today offers a good example of a tortured exchange between poetess and poet. We begin with Miss Barrett who is explaining an edit in her editing of his poem:
"Just to show what may be lost by my crossings out, I will tell you the story
of the one in the 'Duchess'—and in fact it is almost worth telling to a
metaphysician like you, on other grounds, that you may draw perhaps some
psychological good from the absurdity of it. Hear, then. When I had done writing
the sheet of annotations and reflections on your poem I took up my pencil to
correct the passages reflected on with the reflections, by the crosses you may
observe, just glancing over the writing as I did so. Well! and, where that
erasure is, I found a line purporting to be extracted from your 'Duchess,' with
sundry acute criticisms and objections quite undeniably strong, following after
it; only, to my amazement, as I looked and looked, the line so acutely objected
to and purporting, as I say, to, be taken from the 'Duchess,' was by no means to
be found in the 'Duchess,' ... nor anything like it, ... and I am certain indeed
that, in the 'Duchess' or out of it, you never wrote such a bad line in your
life. And so it became a proved thing to me that I had been enacting, in a
mystery, both poet and critic together—and one so neutralizing the other, that I
took all that pains you remark upon to cross myself out in my double capacity,
... and am now telling the story of it notwithstanding. And there's an obvious
moral to the myth, isn't there? for critics who bark the loudest, commonly bark
at their own shadow in the glass, as my Flush used to do long and loud, before
he gained experience and learnt the γνωθι
σεαυτον [know thyself] in the apparition of the brown dog with the glittering dilating
eyes, ... and as I did, under the erasure. And another moral springs up
of itself in this productive ground; for, you see, ... 'quand je m'efface il
n'ya pas grand mal [it is no great harm when I blot myself].'
And I am to be made to work very hard, am I? But you should remember that if
I did as much writing as last summer, I should not be able to do much else, ...
I mean, to go out and walk about ... for really I think I could manage to
read your poems and write as I am writing now, with ever so much head-work of my
own going on at the same time. But the bodily exercise is different, and I do
confess that the novelty of living more in the outer life for the last few
months than I have done for years before, make me idle and inclined to be
idle—and everybody is idle sometimes—even you perhaps—are you not? For
me, you know, I do carpet-work—ask Mrs. Jameson—and I never pretend to be in a
perpetual motion of mental industry. Still it may not be quite as bad as you
think: I have done some work since 'Prometheus'—only it is nothing worth
speaking of and not a part of the romance-poem which is to be some day if I live
for it—lyrics for the most part, which lie written illegibly in pure
Egyptian—oh, there is time enough, and too much perhaps! and so let me be idle a
little now, and enjoy your poems while I can. It is pure enjoyment and must
be—but you do not know how much, or you would not talk as you do sometimes ...
so wide of any possible application.
And do not talk again of what you would 'sacrifice' for me. If
you affect me by it, which is true, you cast me from you farther than ever in
the next thought. That is true.
The poems ... yours ... which you left with me,—are full of various power and
beauty and character, and you must let me have my own gladness from them in my
Now I must end this letter. Did you go to Chelsea and hear the divine
Tell me the truth always ... will you? I mean such truths as may be
painful to me though truths....May God bless you, ever dear friend.
This letter betrays that they are quite intimate friends and presents her at her most maddening. She is totally open to him about her hopes and ambitions and lets him know that he affects her but warns him that this drives him further from him--and in the last line urges him to tell her the truth always, though it be painful. She is probably thinking that she wants to hear the truth about her poetry however Browning reads it a different way. Browning responds the same day:
"Then there is one more thing 'off my mind': I thought it might be with you as
with me—not remembering how different are the causes that operate against
us; different in kind as in degree:—so much reading hurts me, for
instance,—whether the reading be light or heavy, fiction or fact, and so
much writing, whether my own, such as you have seen, or the merest
compliment-returning to the weary tribe that exact it of one. But your
health—that before all!... as assuring all eventually ... and on the other
accounts you must know! Never, pray, pray, never lose one sunny day or
propitious hour to 'go out or walk about.' But do not surprise me, one of
these mornings, by 'walking' up to me when I am introduced' ... or I shall
infallibly, in spite of all the after repentance and begging pardon—I shall
[words effaced]. So here you learn the first 'painful truth' I have it in my
power to tell you!"
So he is not free to tell her the truth as he points out by scratching out the truths that she will not allow him to write and which she would find 'painful though truths'.
"I sent you the last of our poor roses this morning—considering that I fairly
owed that kindness to them.
Yes, I went to Chelsea and found dear Carlyle alone—his wife is in the
country where he will join her as soon as his book's last sheet returns
corrected and fit for press—which will be at the month's end about. He was all
kindness and talked like his own self while he made me tea—and, afterward,
brought chairs into the little yard, rather than garden, and smoked his pipe
with apparent relish; at night he would walk as far as Vauxhall Bridge on my way
If I used the word 'sacrifice,' you do well to object—I can imagine nothing
ever to be done by me worthy such a name.
God bless you, dearest friend—shall I hear from you before Tuesday?"
His picture of his day with Carlyle sounds very homey. She sends another note the same day, which is unusual, given that they normally correspond once or twice a week at this point. But she is responding to the receipt of the flowers he sent. Apparently she has not received his letter yet:
"It is very kind to send these flowers—too kind—why are they sent? and without one
single word ... which is not too kind certainly. I looked down into the heart of
the roses and turned the carnations over and over to the peril of their leaves,
and in vain! Not a word do I deserve to-day, I suppose! And yet if I don't, I
don't deserve the flowers either. There should have been an equal justice done
to my demerits, O Zeus with the scales!
After all I do thank you for these flowers—and they are beautiful—and they
came just in a right current of time, just when I wanted them, or something like
them—so I confess that humbly, and do thank you, at last, rather as I
ought to do. Only you ought not to give away all the flowers of your garden to
me; and your sister thinks so, be sure—if as silently as you sent them.
Now I shall not write any more, not having been written to. What with the
Wednesday's flowers and these, you may think how I in this room, look down on
the gardens of Damascus, let your Jew say
what he pleases of them—and the Wednesday's flowers are as fresh and
beautiful, I must explain, as the new ones. They were quite supererogatory ...
the new ones ... in the sense of being flowers. Now, the sense of what I am
writing seems questionable, does it not?—at least, more so, than the nonsense of
Not a word, even under the little blue flowers!!!— "
Every woman needs flowers at some point, even if they are sent by a friend or a brother rather than a lover. But she is responding not as a friend or sister. She reads a like a delighted, playful woman in love. Which, of course, she was.
I almost typed 'girl in love' but what girl would advise him not to send all the flowers, but to think of his sister? That is the response of a mature woman.
Surely it was letters like this which kept Browning in the chase. She probably knew she was in love but thought it futile and was not sure of the depth of his commitment. He just had to convince her that he could be relied upon and that she did have a choice. He has a lot of work ahead of him.