Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 20, 1845

Let's begin with Miss Barrett's response to Browning's letter of the 19th--she had teazed him about not writing to her but now takes it back with a truism understood by all purveyors of teaze: if she had meant it she would not have written it.


I have your letter now, & now I am sorry I sent mine. If I wrote that you had 'forgotten to write,' I did not mean it,—not a word! If I had meant it I should not have written it. But it would have been better for every reason to have waited just a little longer before writing at all. A besetting sin of mine is an impatience which makes people laugh when it does not entangle their silks, pull their knots tighter, & tear their books in cutting them open.

How right you are about Mr Lowell!– He has a refined fancy & is graceful for an American critic, but the truth is, otherwise, that he knows nothing of English poetry or the next thing to nothing, & has merely had a dream of the early dramatists. The amount of his reading in that direction is an article in the Retrospective Review which contains extracts,—& he re-extracts the extracts, re-quotes the quotations, &, ‘a pede Herculem [from the foot of Hercules],’ from the foot infers the man, or rather from the sandal-string of the foot, infers & judges the soul of the manit is comparative anatomy under the most speculative conditions. How a writer of his talents & pretentions could make up his mind to make up a book on such slight substratum, is a curious proof of the state of literature in America. Do you not think so? Why a lecturer on the English Dramatists for a 'Young Ladies’ Academy' here in England, might take it to be necessary to have better information than he could gather from an odd volume of an old review! And then, Mr Lowell’s naïveté in showing his authority, .. as if the Elizabethan poets lay mouldering in inaccessible manuscript somewhere below the lowest deep of Shakespeare’s grave, .. is curious beyond the rest!– Altogether, the fact is an epigram on the surface-literature of America. As you say, their books do not suit us:—Mrs Markham might as well send her compendium of the History of France to M. Thiers– If they knew more, they could not give parseley crowns to their own native poets, when there is greater merit among the rabbits. Mrs Sigourney has just sent me, .. just this morning .. her 'Scenes in my native land'—&, peeping between the uncut leaves, I read of the poet Hillhouse, of 'sublime spirit & Miltonic energy,' standing in 'the temple of Fame' as if it were built on purpose for him!– I suppose he is like most of the American poets .. who are shadows of the true .. as flat as a shadow, as colourless as a shadow, as lifeless & as transitory. Mr Lowell himself is, in his verse-books, poetical, if not a poet—& certainly this little book we are talking of, is graceful enough in some ways—you would call it a pretty book—would you not? Two or three letters I have had from him .. all very kind!—& that reminds me, alas! of some ineffable ingratitude on my own part! When one’s conscience grows too heavy, there is nothing for it but to throw it away!——"
Miss Barrett is hard on the Americans today. I do not take exception to her comments, what do I know? But methinks her comments are true today of any and all: people do not study things to know, they read extracts of extracts and assume 'knowledge'. You can tell this from reading almost any biography of the Browning's. My advise: go to the primary material and read, don't rely on the biographies-or just rely on them as a starting place.

"Do you remember how I tried to tell you what he said of you, & how you would not let me?

Mr Mathews said of him .. having met him once in society, .. that he was the concentration of conceit in appearance & manner. But since then, they seem to be on better terms.

Where is the meaning, pray, of EBC?—your meaning, I mean.?

My true initials are EBMB—my long name, as opposed to my short one, being … Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett!—there’s a full length to take away one’s breath!– Christian name .. Elizabeth Barrett:—surname, Moulton Barrett. So long it is, that to make it portable, I fell into the habit of doubling it up & packing it closely, .. & of forgetting that I was a Moulton, altogether. One might as well write the alphabet as all four initials. Yet our family-name is Moulton Barrett, & my brothers reproach me sometimes for sacrificing the governorship of an old town in Norfolk with a little honorable verdigris from the Heralds’ Office– As if I cared for the Retrospective Review! Nevertheless it is true that I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave!– Cursed we are from generation to generation!– I seem to hear the ‘Commination service’.

May God bless you always, always!—beyond the always of this world!——

Your EBB—

Mr Dickens’s ‘Cricket’ sings repetitions, &, with considerable beauty, is extravagant– It does not appear to me by any means one of his most successful productions, though quite free from what was reproached as bitterness & one-sidedness, last year.


You do not say how you are—not a word!– And you are wrong in saying that you 'ought to have written'—as if 'ought' could be in place so! You neveroughtto write to me, you know! or rather .. if you ever think you ought, you ought not! Which is a speaking of mysteries on my part!"
I took it upon myself to look at the original letter as filmed on the Baylor website and it seems to me that Miss Barrett had rather shaky penmanship today. The letter itself seems fine as far as content goes, certainly it does not contain her usual morbidity. Hmmm...perhaps she was simply not feeling well or was in need of her laudanum.
Browning writes responding to her letter of December 18 wherein she had written that she would rather die now than disappoint him later:
I do not, nor will not think, dearest, of ever 'making you happy'– I can imagine no way of working to that end, which does not go straight to my own truest, only true happiness: yet in every such effort there is implied some distinction, some supererogatory grace, or why speak of it at all? You it is, are my happiness, and all that ever can be: you—dearest!
But never, if you would not .. what you will not do, I know .. never revert to that frightful wish—'Disappoint me?' 'I speak what I know and testify what I have seen'—you shall say 'mystery' again & again—I do not dispute that—but do not you dispute, neither, that mysteries are: but it is simply because I do most justice to the mystical part of what I feel for you, because I consent to lay most stress on that fact of facts that I love you, beyond admiration, and respect, and esteem and affection, evenand do not adduce any reason which stops short of accounting for that, whatever else it would account for .. because I do this, in pure logical justice—you are able to turn and wonder (.. if you do .. now) what causes it all! My love, only wait, only believe in me—and it cannot be but I shall, little by little, become known to youafter long years perhaps, but still one day. I would say this now—but I will write more to-morrow– God bless my sweetest—ever, love, I am your RB
But my letter came last night, did it not?
<Another thing [this is scratched out]> no, tomorrow—for time presses, and, in all cases, Tuesday—remember!"
Wonderful strategy that he did not berate her for saying that she would rather die than disappoint, he just refers to it as 'frightful'; he simply reiterates that he loves her and allows for miracles. And she was worried about teazing him about not writing.

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