Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 16, 1845

Miss Barrett responds to Browning's latest avowal from September 13th on September 16, 1845:

"I scarcely know how to write what is to be written nor indeed why it is to be written and to what end. I have tried in vain—and you are waiting to hear from me. I am unhappy enough even where I am happy—but ungrateful nowhere—and I thank you from my heart—profoundly from the depths of my heart ... which is nearly all I can do.

One letter I began to write and asked in it how it could become me to speak at all if 'from the beginning and at this moment you never dreamed of' ... and there, I stopped and tore the paper; because I felt that you were too loyal and generous, for me to bear to take a moment's advantage of the same, and bend down the very flowering branch of your generosity (as it might be) to thicken a little the fence of a woman's caution and reserve. You will not say that you have not acted as if you 'dreamed'—and I will answer therefore to the general sense of your letter and former letters, and admit at once that I did state to you the difficulties most difficult to myself ... though not all ... and that if I had been worthier of you I should have been proportionably less in haste to 'bid you leave that subject.' I do not understand how you can seem at the same moment to have faith in my integrity and to have doubt whether all this time I may not have felt a preference for another ... which you are ready 'to serve,' you say. Which is generous in you—but in me, where were the integrity? Could you really hold me to be blameless, and do you think that truehearted women act usually so? Can it be necessary for me to tell you that I could not have acted so, and did not? And shall I shrink from telling you besides ... you, who have been generous to me and have a right to hear it ... and have spoken to me in the name of an affection and memory most precious and holy to me, in this same letter ... that neither now nor formerly has any man been to my feelings what you are ... and that if I were different in some respects and free in others by the providence of God, I would accept the great trust of your happiness, gladly, proudly, and gratefully; and give away my own life and soul to that end. I would do it ... not, I do ... observe! it is a truth without a consequence; only meaning that I am not all stone—only proving that I am not likely to consent to help you in wrong against yourself. You see in me what is not:—that, I know: and you overlook in me what is unsuitable to you ... that I know, and have sometimes told you. Still, because a strong feeling from some sources is self-vindicating and ennobling to the object of it, I will not say that, if it were proved to me that you felt this for me, I would persist in putting the sense of my own unworthiness between you and menot being heroic, you know, nor pretending to be so. But something worse than even a sense of unworthiness, God has put between us! and judge yourself if to beat your thoughts against the immovable marble of it, can be anything but pain and vexation of spirit, waste and wear of spirit to you ... judge! The present is here to be seen ... speaking for itself! and the best future you can imagine for me, what a precarious thing it must be ... a thing for making burdens out of ... only not for your carrying, as I have vowed to my own soul. As dear Mr. Kenyon said to me to-day in his smiling kindness ... 'In ten years you may be strong perhaps'—or 'almost strong'! that being the encouragement of my best friends! What would he say, do you think, if he could know or guess...! what could he say but that you were ... a poet!—and I ... still worse! Never let him know or guess!

Some friends and I have been discussing the concept of 'nobility' recently since there is a regional business which has a new marketing campaign which claims that the business being promoted is 'noble'. I have has a great problem with this claim. While there is nothing illegal or immoral in the business I cannot see how using their services is in any way ennobling. And calling your own business 'noble' seems doubtfully noble. Perhaps I reject this marketing campaign because I have seen real nobility in action among all kinds of people. People who sacrifice their own comfort, money and lives for the good of others, strangers or family, with no consideration of the cost to them. Or, if they do consider the cost, and perhaps even fear it, they make the sacrifice anyway. That is nobility. That is love.

Miss Barrett was noble. She loved this man but was willing to sacrifice her own happiness to protect him from what she saw as a burden. There were many other reasons for her rejection of his proposal (which he was able to overcome) but this fear that she would burden him stayed with her to the end of her life. Browning repeatedly told Miss Barrett that he 'believed' in her. Miss Barrett 'believed' in Browning too. She believed that he was a great poet and was born for just that purpose and that to be forced to care for her would prevent him from fulfilling his destiny. She also feared that being forced to make a living doing something besides creating poetry, in order to support her, would be a sacrifice of his gift. She was ultimately proved wrong in her belief that she would harm his life and career, but she was noble in her reasons for believing as she did.

"And so if you are wise and would be happy (and you have excellent practical sense after all and should exercise it) you must leave me—these thoughts of me, I mean ... for if we might not be true friends for ever, I should have less courage to say the other truth. But we may be friends always ... and cannot be so separated, that your happiness, in the knowledge of it, will not increase mine. And if you will be persuaded by me, as you say, you will be persuaded thus ... and consent to take a resolution and force your mind at once into another channel. Perhaps I might bring you reasons of the class which you tell me 'would silence you for ever.' I might certainly tell you that my own father, if he knew that you had written to me so, and that I had answered you—so, even, would not forgive me at the end of ten years—and this, from none of the causes mentioned by me here and in no disrespect to your name and your position ... though he does not over-value poetry even in his daughter, and is apt to take the world's measures of the means of life ... but for the singular reason that he never does tolerate in his family (sons or daughters) the development of one class of feelings. Such an objection I could not bring to you of my own will—it rang hollow in my ears—perhaps I thought even too little of it:—and I brought to you what I thought much of, and cannot cease to think much of equally. Worldly thoughts, these are not at all, nor have been: there need be no soiling of the heart with any such:—and I will say, in reply to some words of yours, that you cannot despise the gold and gauds of the world more than I do, and should do even if I found a use for them. And if I wished to be very poor, in the world's sense of poverty, I could not, with three or four hundred a year of which no living will can dispossess me. And is it not the chief good of money, the being free from the need of thinking of it? It seems so to me."

She does not have much luck in persuading Browning or 'forcing' his mind into another channel. Two points here: she points out that her father will reject her if she went with Browning although she also points out that this consideration is secondary. Also she makes the point that she is not rejecting him due to the fact that he is a penniless poet. She has money enough of her own. She will not dishonor him by rejecting him due to his lack of fortune. Noble and kind.

"The obstacles then are of another character, and the stronger for being so. Believe that I am grateful to you—how grateful, cannot be shown in words nor even in tears ... grateful enough to be truthful in all ways. You know I might have hidden myself from you—but I would not: and by the truth told of myself, you may believe in the earnestness with which I tell the other truths—of you ... and of this subject. The subject will not bear consideration—it breaks in our hands. But that God is stronger than we, cannot be a bitter thought to you but a holy thought ... while He lets me, as much as I can be anyone's, be only yours. E.B.B."

This letter is almost inconceivable today. How hard it must have been to turn away such an offer of love. Her morality, duty and personal integrity, so evident in this letter, are exactly what drew him to her and kept him fighting for her. Perhaps this letter had just the opposite effect than she anticipated. It would surely have brought into focus in his mind her higher qualities. As we shall see, it certainly does not discourage him, especially with her statement at the end that she will 'be only yours.' That is certainly all the encouragement he needs.

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