"50 Wimpole Street,
December 5th 1845.
It is with shame and confusion of face, my dear Mr. Mathews, that I read your letter and remembered that it was to be enunciated of me 'the maid is not dead but sleepeth.' Nothing but being actually dead, I do humbly confess, could justify me before my own conscience and your sense of justice, and so there is nothing for me (being too, too much alive) but to creep on the knees of a contrite soul to the back door of your mercy and to pray her to be at home to me and let me in. Will you—can you forgive me?
'Not dead'—you say—'not even ill!' you repeat. Can such things be in that old land of corruption, and can they be pardonable?
Not dead—not even ill—I confess—nay, shamefully better I am! Shamefully well I am, and yet you must try to forgive me—try to be consoled for this handwriting of mine, in the proper place of that of my executors.
For here is the truth. I am always much better when it is summer, my complaint being weakness of the lungs, and for several summers I have made progress in the gross, though thrown back every winter in some degree on the spikes again. Did you ever 'do the sum' about the snail who crept and slept and crept and slept? I have, both in a sum and an experience. Still in this last summer my advances were very large. I was quite well in fact, only not quite strong of course,—able to go out in the carriage—able to get into the air and feel 'this is liberty again,' and then, I was on the verge of an expedition to Italy in which to hide myself from this winter,—and I felt that if I could go I should be well and strong like the enjoyers of the world’s life—and I was hindered in the going. It was too full a benediction for such a head as mine. Well,—and all these intentions and hopes and emotions, and some others yet stranger and deeper, absorbed me!"
Strange and deep emotions indeed.
"It was as if an oyster had the wings of an eagle, and lighted on Teneriffe. Now could he be expected to think any more of his sandbank or even of the curlew’s cry associated with his former immobility? and I, who am not naturally an oyster; but had an oyster’s life thrust on me—I could think of nothing but of the new budding of the new wings—but of the beating of my own heart. I forgot how to write and read. Try if you can understand. I mean to say, I thought of nothing long enough to write it down in letters and agree to engagements on it.– I could think of you sometimes. I could think that I was abominably ungrateful to you, and to some others. But I could not write, I read your 'Abel' and indeed did my best to get it reviewed by some one capable of entering into the peculiar life of that work."
She is describing being paralysed by being in love with Browning without mentioning being in love with anyone. The oyster analogy being suggestively apt for someone in love. She surely could have worked that into one of the sonnets, mayhaps she did and it ended up consigned to the fire. Perhaps one of the Blogoleers will give it a try.
"They answered me, that it was all in vain,—just as you anticipated,—that it was too peculiar, your little book—too deeply dyed in your national colours, to have a hope of success with readers here; and I could understand something of this from the effect of the book on myself. I could discern the talent—but it missed its hold on me precisely because there was a want of the necessary American stuff in me, to hold by. And I tell you this of your Abel, to prove how I have not been utterly self-absorbed—believe me, I have not. Also if adversity is good for me, I am now restored to my prison—shut up as of old,—not ill, but forced on the pain of being ill to keep my double doors shut doubly and my windows hermetically sealed, and a fire by day and by night; and having tasted of liberty, the slavery is bitter. I shake my chains impotently; forgive me for the sake of that piteous sound."
She is very delicate with her criticism of his American book but rather lays it on a bit thick with her pathetic appeal to her poor health. Given the state of womanhood in the 19th century she may as well use the state of her lungs to deflect blame. Hopefully Mr. Mathews will not think the less of her for this pathetic parry.
"Now,—your first charge finds me innocent—innocent. I never received Griswold’s poets,—never the Southern quarterly, Columbian Magazine, etc.—never, that packet. I sent repeatedly to Mr. Putnam’s, naming Griswold. And the answer has always been 'not received.' Several newspapers have come safely, for which I have silently thanked you. I had the remittance safely too, from Mr. Langley, and take shame on myself for not acknowledging it. [According to The Footnote King she received £14.] Will you be so kind?—but no. I should write to him, I think, with my own hand. I was very well satisfied with his report of the poems, and grateful to you all, notwithstanding appearances. As to the proposition about the prose miscellanies, I could not but be gratified by it, but I wish you to understand that I should be averse from the re-issue of the Athenæum papers without a complete course of rewriting. It has frequently been urged on me here to throw them (enlarging them in the process) into the shape of publishable chapters on English poetry and Greek Christian poetry, and if Mr. Langley likes to give me time, I do not object to placing a volume of miscellanies from the source designated, or others, in his hands. But should they not be put into proof in London and then transmitted? How should it be? You amuse me when you say that Mr. Poe has dedicated a book to me and abused me in the preface of it. That I should not think human justice—if it were not American. I know him for a writer of considerable power. And now may I hope without audacity to hear of you and of your doings? I am a penitent—believe it of me. How does 'Big Abel' succeed in his land? And what are you engaged on at present? For me, I have been an example of idleness, as you may gather.
Mrs. Butler [Fanny Kemble for you Blogoleers who have not been paying attention] brings to England a good report of American life, and professes an intention of growing old among you when her time comes. In the meanwhile she does not think of returning to the stage here, but rather of assisting her father in his Shakespearian readings, by which he makes some sixty pounds a week already. I understand Mr. Browning has just published another number of 'Bells and Pomegranates,' in which his great original faculty throws out new colours and expands in new combinations. A great poet he is—a greater poet he will be—for to work and to live are one with him. The 'Flight of the Duchess' in his last number, has wonderful things in it, and the versification is a study for poets."
"I understand Mr. Browning has just published...." Indeed? How could she possibly know this? Ah well, she has to promote her personal poet. She is certainly good at promotion: she has planted the seed of Browning's genius among the Americans:
"Walter Savage Landor has lately addressed the following verses to him:
To Robert Browning.'There is delight in singing though none hear
Beside the singer; and there is delight
In praising, though the praiser sit alone
And see the praised far off him, far above.
Shakespeare is not our poet but the world’s,
Therefore on him no speech; and short for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing. The breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.'
Fine, generous lines, are they not? and never a better epithet chosen, than the word 'hale,' for Chaucer. Mr. Tennyson has a pension, you see, but for the rest, is said rather to smoke than to make poems. He has taken a whole turret to himself in the 'Castle of Indolence'. Dickens is about to cast himself headlong into the doubtful undertaking of the new daily paper, the 'Daily News.' The opinions against success are many. It is a great object to combine literature and civil philosophy, both of the highest and purest, and to give the man of letters in England that social status which on the continent is secured to him. But thinkers have observed first, That the English people will not have democracy in a journal apart from politics, viz., the old forms of party—that literature will not be permitted to keep place beside what are considered in this country graver questions—and that lastly, the social rank of men of letters must be given by society when it is ripe enough to discern and give, and cannot be snatched prematurely. While we offer dinners and memorials to a railway speculator, like Hudson, we are not in a condition—our hands are not clean enough—to invite poets across our thresholds. This England of ours is behind other nations in the true civilization. I cannot choose but think so. Dear Mr. Matthews, let me have your forgiveness soon, and believe in the continued grateful regard of
Elizabeth Barrett Barrett."
It is a smart Englishwoman who praises the egalitarian way of the Americans while begging forgiveness. Another example of Miss Barrett's letter writing gifts.