Friday, November 23, 2012

November 23, 1845

Browning writes two letters today. The first to his friend Alfred Domett. Browning, Domett and Arnould were three young men who formed a small clique, calling themselves 'The Colloquials'. They ran around town together, shared each other's ideas, read each others writing and were generally trying to find themselves. Yes, I would say that all night drinking sessions were common with them. Both Arnould and Domett went into law. Domett was probably the most ambitious of the group and left England for New Zealand, ultimately became the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Browning and Domett were very close, but Domett was very critical of Browning's poetry. He was not shy of telling Browning that his poems were too obscure to ever be popular with the public. This letter to Domett, Browning's description of writing the letter and the furtherance of their friendship is a very interesting aspect of Browning's life that I will comment on later.

"New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey.

Sunday Night, Nov. 23. 1845.

Ah, dear Domett, how sad it is—here am I writing in reply to your last, some six or eight weeks after its receipt, and yet 'availing myself of the earliest opportunity,' 'not letting next post slip,' and complying with every form of good fellowship: 'Mr Earp’s line' goes in and out of its place in the newspapers, describing the truest zigzag, and his last packet’s departure was put off a month—as I doubt not you know to your cost, laden as it must always be with the good wishes, put into words, of everybody who knows you. Your kindest of notes I got, and, thro’ Arnould, a sight of his letter, and a bit of one as reported by C. Dowson—then all those capital 'Examiners'—of which more in a moment—and, last of all, I manage every now & then to waylay your Father .. and if it were not for the purely selfish pleasure I confess to receiving on my part,—I would cry aloud to you for due acknowledgment of the unequivocal delight I give him in casing his love in words—we met not long ago in Regent’s Street—he, passing alone and erect and straight on like the lion he is, on his return from a call on Alexander, (whose report on the state of the eyes was quite favorable, he said)—and we 'had it out' to heart’s content: for—tho’ your last communications were in that desponding vein, we here, who knew of that recall of Fitzroy and the appointment of Grey, saw the sun unrisen on your far side, and made sure that your position would acquire value just in consequence of and in proportion to, its present disadvantages—and that you may plainly turn the past couple of years to their legitimate profit, nor have to begin afresh this wearisome 'going on adventures' to Ceylon or any such novel ground: oh, but this distance—this undoes everything—and between what we know and what it has become worth by when you know it, what a difference! Here a day or two, does so much! Chatterton can only go without food a certain number of hours, so he ends it, while at that moment some benevolent man .. see his name in Southey, I think,—is actually started on his way to Bristol 'to inquire into the circumstances of,—and, if necessary, assist—the author.' But do you, 'dear my friend and fellow student'—bear up like the good strong man you are,—'easy of me to say!'– God bless you in any case, and whenever the whole world dies off by any chance, be sure you find your way to me, and we two will keep house in the merry grim spirit of poor Hood’s last-man-but-one & the very last—do you remember? 'All the world wide, is dead beside, and we will be brother & brother'—(and if I go on and end the couplet, 'I’ve a liking for thee in my heart. As if we had come of one mother,' ‘it is not for the rhyme’, no! but the sober reason)."
You can well see the great affection between the two men.

"I read those 'leaders' with the greatest interest and satisfaction—they evidence so clearly your available talent—over above what I knew before: but now! You know best, best & best again! But, that admitted, why not have taken that happy opportunity, the offered representativeship, and gone there and 'jawed' if but in John Lilburne’s method; who when pilloried, or carted rather, 'did justify himself to all men'—whereon they gagged him and tied his hands lest he should gesticulate and explain something by that—'yet did he protest against them by a stamping with his feet'—to the no small comfort of his stout heart, I warrant. For see—out of this 'stamping of the feet,' tho’ the hands were tied & the mouth stopped, came the very decided opinion here which has overset your foolish Governor. And to-day: the affair of Despard—the outrageous folly of that man .. but you will see our papers for yourself, no doubt. It is most sickening to read or think of."
Domett at this time was editor of the Examiner, which was calling for the recall of the governor of New Zealand. There was a great deal of bloodshed between the newly arriving whites and the native Maori's who felt their land was being taken from them. This effort succeeded and the new governor did reign over a period of relative peace. However, by the time Domett took office as Prime Minister, some years later, they were in the midst of the 2nd Maori War. The reference to 'the affair of Despard' regards an attack on a Maori fortress which was a bloody failure with a loss of 121 of the 490 soldiers involved in the assault. This action took place in July 1845 and the news was just reaching England in November. By this time also, the governor had been replaced. There was much going on in the world besides our two poets mooning over each other, much that they were well aware of, but do not seem to discuss in their letters. All love is local.

"Let me get out of it: I have not seen Dowson very lately .. but he is well, I hear: Arnould is your heartiest of lovers and wellwishers, and my admirable friend as ever, and his wife is a true piece of him– My father, mother & sister are well, and send kindest regards .. (no figure; they have just enjoined me to send them)– A glance at any side of a newspaper tells you all our book news. Herewith goes my new Bell—'wishing what I write may be read by your light'– I send, too, a Review that may interest you at odd places. I saw Pritchard yesterday, full of this New Zealand news; always hoping & believing in you."
A mention of Pritchard, Browning's sailor friend.

God bless you, dear Domett; write to me if but a line; as you could not help doing if you knew how it gratifies your ever affectionate RB"
Browning now turns his pen to Miss Barrett:
"Sunday Night.
But a word to-night, my love—for my head aches a little,—I had to write a long letter to my friend at New Zealand, and now I want to sit and think of you and get well—but I must not quite lose the word I counted on.
So, that way you will take my two days and turn them against me? Oh, you! Did I say the 'root' had been striking then, or not rather, that the seeds, whence the roots take leisure and grow, they had been planted then—and might not a good heart & hand drop acorns enough to grow up into a complete Dodona-grove,—when the very rook, say farmers, hides and forgets whole navies of ship-wood one day to be, in his summer storing-journeys? But, this shall do– I am not going to prove what may be, when here it is, to my everlasting happiness.
"The oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epirus was revealed by the rustling of the leaves of oak trees, which the priests interpreted." Browning is referring the the 48 hours that they had been together since May. Miss Barrett had not been impressed with the time together.
"—And 'I am kind'—there again! Do I not know what you mean by that? Well it is some comfort that you make all even in some degree, and take from my faculties here what you give them, spite of my protesting, in other directions. So I could not when I first saw you admire you very much, and wish for your friendship, and be willing to give you mine, and desirous of any opportunity of serving you, benefitting you,—I could not think the finding myself in a position to feel this, just this and no more, a sufficiently fortunate event .. but I must needs get up, or imitate, or .. what is it you fancy I do? .. an utterly distinct, unnecessary, inconsequential regard for you, which should,—when it got too hard for shamming at the week’s end,—should simply spoil, in its explosion and departure, all the real and sufficing elements of an honest life-long attachment and affection! that I should do this, and think it a piece of kindness does .."
Do you sense a touch of anger here? Browning seems to take it that Miss Barrett believes that the real affection, love if we call it by it's right name, that he feels for her is gotten up or imitated or shammed. That it is somehow felt out of a kindness that he feels toward her. I wondered what Browning had said to her brother that made her say the Browning was 'kind'. He is sounding fairly exasperated. But lo, what do we find in the next paragraph?
"Now, I’ll tell you what it does deserve, and what it shall get. Give me, dearest beyond expression, what I have always dared to think I would ask you for .. one day! Give me .. wait—for your own sake, not mine who never, never dream of being worth such a gift .. but for your own sense of justice, and to say, so as my heart shall hear, that you were wrong and are no longer so, give me so much of you—all precious that you are—as may be given in a lock of your hair– I will live and die with it, and with the memory of you—this at the worst! If you give me what I beg,—shall I say next Tuesday .. when I leave you, I will not speak a word: .. If you do not, I will not think you unjust, for all my light words but I will pray you to wait and remember me one day—when the power to deserve more may be greater .. never the will. God supplies all things—may he bless you, beloved! So I can but pray, kissing your hand. RB
Now pardon me, dearest, for what is written .. what I cannot cancel, for the love’s sake that it grew from."
Oh, that manipulative devil. He tries to make her feel guilty to get what he wants. Gotta love that deep psychological work going on there, feigned exasperation and all. He draws a great line across the paper and continues in a different vein:
"The 'Chronicle' was thro’ Moxon, I believe. Landor had sent the verses to Forster at the same time as to me, yet they do not appear. I never in my life less cared about people’s praise or blame for myself, and never more for its influence on other people than now– I would stand as high as I could in the eyes of all about you—yet not, after all, at poor Chorley’s expense whom your brother, I am sure unintentionally, is rather hasty in condemning; I have told you of my own much rasher opinion and how I was ashamed and sorry when I corrected it after. C. is of a different species to your brother, differently trained, looking different ways—and for some of the peculiarities that strike at first sight, C. himself gives a good reason to the enquirer on better acquaintance. For 'vulgarity'—no! But your kind brother will alter his view, I know, on further acquaintance .. and,—woe’s me!—will find that 'assumption’s' pertest self would be troubled to exercise its quality at such a house as Mr K.’s where every symptom of a proper claim is met half way and helped onward far too readily."
It is very loyal of Browning to defend Chorley to Miss Barrett. And even turns it against himself in suggesting that her brother's assumptions about himself might well be mistaken as well. Very nobly played.
"Good night, now. Am I not yours—are you not mine? and can that make you happy too?
Bless you once more and for ever! That scrap of Landor’s being for no other eye than mine—I made the foolish comment, that there was no blotting out—made it some four or five years ago, when I could read what I only guess at now,—thro’ my idle opening the hand and letting the caught bird go—but there used to be a real satisfaction to me in writing those grand Hebrew characters—the noble language!"
This last comment is a reference to his writing in Hebrew on the envelope of Landor's older letter that he lent to Miss Barrett. It sounds like he is lamenting that he did not keep up his study of the Hebrew language.
One last note on the letter to Domett, in light of Browning's comments to Miss Barrett that he 'had' to write a letter to his old friend in New Zealand. Note that the does not mention Miss Barrett to Domett. This may well have been basic prudence, for he had no way of knowing whether Domett might drop a casual comment to another correspondent and thus it might have gotten back into the gossip of London society. But he does mention to Miss Barrett that he wrote the letter but nothing of the content. When Arnould wrote Domett to tell him that Browning had married Miss Barrett he conveyed his belief that Miss Barrett had instigated the romance and forced Browning into the marriage. How interesting is perception. Arnould and thus Domett could not fathom that Browning had fallen in love with the sickly poet of Wimpole Street. This makes Miss Barrett's own skepticism all the more believable. No one believed he fell in love with her!

After Browning was married he stopped writing to Domett and Domett stopped writing to Browning although they both continued to write to Arnould. Arnould and Domett also became the trustees of Browning's marriage settlement, but I suspect this was rather a moot point, since there was nothing to settle. It wasn't until 1871 that Domett returned to London and through Arnould the two men became acquainted again. We know from Domett's letters home to New Zealand that Browning had changed much in his eyes. Keep in mind that Domett never met EBB and when Browning reverently showed him her things as he kept them in his study (eleven years after her death) he felt Browning and his sister Sarianna spoke of her as though she had been "supernatural in excellence - talent - and modest unconsciousness." Domett perhaps thought Browning lost in a kind of dream world, no longer the clear eyed young man that he ran around town with. Keep in mind that Domett remained under the impression all those years that it was a forced or reluctant marriage on Browning's part, so to see Browning still worshipful must have seemed quite strange. But Browning had the leisure to be a romantic, Domett was a man of the law and had to be down to earth. 

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