Wednesday, March 6, 2013

March 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Greetings
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 
on the
207th Anniversary of Her Natal Day
Rather than a letter today I offer a description of Mrs. Browning by Nathaniel Hawthorne written in Florence, June 9, 1858:
"Mrs. Browning met us at the door of the drawing-room, and greeted us most kindly - a pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all; at any rate, only substantial enough to put forth her slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill, yet sweet, tenuity of voice. Really, I do not see how Mr. Browning can suppose that he has an earthly wife any more than an earthly child; both are of the elfin-race, and will flit away from him some day when he least thinks of it. She is a good and kind fairy, however, and sweetly disposed towards the human race, although only remotely akin to it. It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in this world; and her black ringlets  cluster down into her neck, and make her face look the whiter by their sable profusion. I could not form an judgement about her age; it may range any where within the limits of human life, or elfin-life. When I met her in London, at Lord Houghton's breakfast-table she did not impress me so singularly; for the morning light is more prosaic that the dim illumination of the great tapestried drawing-room; and besides, sitting next to her, she did not have occasion to raise her voice in speaking, and I was not sensible what a slender voice she has. It is marvellous to me how extraordinary, so acute, so sensitive a creature, can impress us, as she does, with the certainty of her benevolence. It seems to me there were a million chances to one that she would have been a miracle of acidity and bitterness." 
Elsewhere Hawthorne noted that her speaking voice was, " if a grasshopper should speak."

Happy you could stop by our world, Mrs. Browning.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February 20, 1852

There is one note extant that Mrs. Browning wrote to Browning after they were married. Their child was ill and she had to send for Browning at a society dinner on February 20, 1852:

You had better I think bring Dr. Macarthy or somebody with you to see Baby. He had had another attack, decidedly worse in character, & though he is now asleep, yet it may return, & we ought to know what to do at once--Don't be frightened. You know I lose my head--but really it is best that you shd. bring some one--Your Ba-"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

February 14

I could not resist a love letter on Valentine's Day, although this letter from Browning is postmarked May 10, 1846. As usual he tries to muddle it up, but his meaning actually comes through pretty clear:

"I am always telling you, because always feeling, that I can express nothing of what goes from my heart to you, my Ba: but there is a certain choice I have all along exercised, of subjects on which I would try and express somewhat—while others might be let alone with less disadvantage. When we first met, it was in your thought that I loved you only for your poetry .. I think you thought that: and because one might be imagined to love that and not you,—because everybody must love it, indeed, that is worthy, and yet needs not of necessity love you,—yet might mistake, or determine to love you thro’ loving it .. for all these reasons, there was not the immediate demand on me for a full expression of my admiration for your intellectuality,—do you see?—rather, it was proper to insist as little as possible on it, and speak to the woman, Ba, simply—and so I have tried to speak,—partly, in truth, because I love her best, and love her mind by the light and warmth of her heart—reading her verses, saying 'and these are Ba’s',—not kissing her lips because they spoke the verses. But it does not follow that I have lost the sense of any delight that has its source in you, my dearest, dearest,—however I may choose to live habitually with certain others in preference. I would shut myself up with you, and die to the world, and live out fifty long,—long lives in bliss through your sole presence—but it is no less true that it will also be an ineffable pride,—something too sweet for the name of pride,—to avow myself, before anyone whose good opinion I am solicitous to retain, as so distinguished by you—it is too sweet, indeed,—so I guard against it,—for frequent allusion to it, might, .. (as I stammer, and make plain things unintelligible) .. might cause you to misconceive me, .. which would be dreadful .. for after all, Ba’s head has given the crown its worth,—though a wondrous crown it is, too!– All this means .. the avowal we were speaking of, will be a heart’s pride—above every other pride whenever you decide on making such an avowal. You will understand as you do ever your own RB"
Not that there is anything wrong with kissing a genius--but it is incidental to the genius that the kissing takes place. Just to be clear.

—On getting home I found letters and letters—the best being a summons to meet Tennyson at Moxon’s on Tuesday,—and the frightfullest .. nay, I will send it. Now, Ba, hold my hand from the distant room, tighter than ever, at about 8. o’clock on Wednesday, .. for I must go, I fear. 'Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking ..' &c &c 'ἐα, ἐα, ἀπεχε, φευ [ah, ah, refrain alas].' Then Mr Kenyon writes that his friend Commodore Jones is returned to England in bad health and that he must away to Portsmouth and see him. So I do not go on Monday. While I was away Chorley’s brother (John Chorley) called,—having been put to the trouble of a journey hither for nothing.

I have been out this morning—to church with my sister—and the sun shone almost oppressively,—but now all is black, and threatening. How I send my heart after your possible movements, my own all-beloved! Care for yourself, and for me. But a few months more,—if God shall please! May He bless you.

Ever your own RB

Hail and rain—at a quarter to four o’clock!"
Happy Valentine's Day to all the Blogoleers out there in BarrettBrowningBlogland!

Friday, January 25, 2013

October 17, 1858

As an encore I want to share a brief extract from a letter Mrs. Browning wrote to her sister Arabel. She is writing from Paris. It gives a glimpse of daily life with the Browning family as Mrs. B goes shopping with her eight year old son and her maid Annunciata.  Browning's sister Sarianna also makes a guest appearance. I get a kick out of this because it reflects her light touch and her frustration with her husband's frugality:

"Let me see what I have to tell you of our doings, less sad than that. In the first place-My bonnet came home very, very pretty--but as there was something I wanted changed, I went the next morning to have it done & to pay for it, Annunciata & Peni going with me,--& Robert gave me two napoleons for the purpose. On our arrival at the Modiste's,...purse gone!-Dropped in the street! Imagine the agreeable surprise!- So I had to retrace my steps in a deep state of humiliation-Penini full of compassion, proposed my waiting in a shop, while he ran on to 'tell Papa & get it over' -- & when I objected that 'we must confess our own sins',..'no,' said he, 'I won't let you- I'll be the priest this time!' So, off he ran full speed, & by the time I reached the door of our apartment, there was Robert perfectly magnanimous & forgiving, coming to pity & bring more money. It was very, very good of him- Still, as I say, he is human, & I expect to be reminded of it three times a day to the Day of Judgement."

We can see who holds the purse stings--and who doesn't! Of course, I looked these coins up on Wiki and the gold napoleons came in 20 and 40 franc denominations. And yes, at that time, the French were using real gold as currency. Apparently Pen was expecting the worst. But read on mon chere!

"Since then, I have been out buying last purchases, generally under guardianship-Twice, Sarianna arrived just as I was going out, & so accompanied me. Once, Robert went himself- I have bought a warm petticoat-'English'--red & black--twelve francs, & a pretty parasol, ten francs. Robert has bought an artist's manikin--& an opera glass, single, of great power for 30 francs-"

Robert went on a splurge there! As for the manikin and opera glass: so much for Mr. Frugality. And she was the one who needed guardianship! The difference being: she didn't care what he spent-she didn't care about money.

I don't know about you, but I am very interested in this red and black 'English' petticoat. That is a fairly radical color combination. Something else of note, she seems in pretty robust health (for her) in 1858, walking about Paris in the middle of October. I am guessing that the cool weather hadn't set in yet.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Not a Farewell...

I started this blog a year ago on a whim. Part of me believed that I could never sustain it for a year, but the letters were so interesting the blog really wrote itself. I enjoyed the research it took to interpret the letters. Perhaps because I started it on a whim there are things I would have done differently. The main think I would have done differently would have been beginning at the beginning of the courtship and follow it through until they left for Italy. As it was I squeezed two years-or more-together on one page. But it wasn't a fatal error. You and I both survived.

Also, when I began, and for a time, I included letters from other years and to other people. But over time I became more interested in following the thread of the courtship letters. Also, during this time I read the two volume set of Mrs. Browning's letters to her sister Arabel. I finished those letters at about the same time as the blog wound down. Mrs. Browning's sister Henrietta died in November 1860 and as her health began to fail her in late 1860 and early 1861 the depression she was going through seemed to be affecting me as I nightly read her letters. She seemed at times to lose her faith and talk herself back into it in the same paragraph. Her letters to Arabel were cathartic. At one point Arabel was apparently offended by Mrs. Browning's seeming lecture on not embracing grief and she had to explain that she was referring to herself and not Arabel. And then Mrs. Browning died all over again, 152 years later. My rational mind laughs at the absurdity of being sad about it, she would be very old indeed if she lived on.

I have also read many biographies over the past year and most of them are really bad. Only the more modern ones give me any hope for the profession of literary biographer. Too many of them have a strange prejudice against one or the other of the poets. Biographers are judgemental and so very orthodox. I plead with any of you to read the primary material rather than taking the biographers word for anything. I have read some real howlers from the biographer fraternity. They take quotes out of context, apply quotes to the wrong year, the wrong circumstance and the wrong poem. Many of the biographers of the early twentieth century made a romantic hash of the love story, making Browning into some kind of demi-god and Miss Barrett into something of a simpleton. What I make of them may be a irrelevant, but Browning was not a god and Miss Barrett was not a simpleton. Their relationship was not understood by them; I have no claim on understanding it any better than they did. I think Browning was a very conventional man, very conservative in many ways. He was no iconoclast, he conformed in almost every way to societal standards and norms. Mrs. Browning was far more unconventional in her thoughts and really very brave. She was not scared to tell the world, through her poetry, that she admired Napoleon III and supported the struggle for Italian unification. She became unpopular in her home country for her political views. She did not care. She was also very bold in her religion. She embraced and rejected most Christian religions. She went to Catholic Mass and many other mix and match services. She scandalized her conservative sister by allowing her young son to reenact the mass in exact detail in the drawing room. I think she was more interested that this young boy could remember all the words and actions of the priests and reproduce them, than worried that he might absorb the meaning and become a papist. Her letters are full of antidotes where she described things that she did which upset her conservative husband. (She let her dog Flush run free in the church with the other Italian dogs and he urinated on the altar, which she found amusing and Browning found appalling. He couldn't take her anywhere!) She was boldly anti-slavery, writing a very shocking (for the time--tepid for today) poem about a slave, pregnant by her master, who kills the offspring of the rape. She wrote about the conditions of child labor and in her masterwork took on the state of 19th century women, addressing rape, the class system, the education of women and the inability of women to choose their own profession. She was not scared. But Browning was.

I have mentioned many times in the blog that Browning was in a perpetual state of embarrassment. Some may call this modesty. But this seems to point to his conventionality. His wife embarrassed him on a regular basis. He was embarrassed by her politics and by her interest in spiritualism. The editors who publish the letters of the Browning's usually begin with an explanation of why they are publishing private letters. These discussion are often uncomfortable sessions in which they quote Browning's letters(!) explaining why he didn't want their letters published. He spent quite a bit of time in his later years trying to retrieve his wife's letters from people who might publish them and burning his own. Usually they quote from letters Browning wrote to his brother-in-law George Barrett in which Browning appeals to George and the other Barrett brothers to protect Mrs. Browning after his death. He is embarrassed especially by her enthusiastic interest in Spiritualism. He believed that this interest would ruin her reputation. Her unconventional religious inquiries seem pretty mainstream today and even conservative. From reading her letters it is perfectly clear that she desperately wanted to communicate with the dead but her experiments were almost total failures. She was not blind to this and always wanted controls and proof but seldom got proof, although she did get a lot of excited testimony about phenomena other people had experienced.

The Browning letters which remain are, for the most part, not especially interesting. The letters to his sister and later his son are mostly missing. Sarianna was his only intimate receiving letters. Even his letters to Isa Blagdon, which are interesting, are not especially revealing. They do not compare in power to the letters of his wife. I think ultimately he could not bring himself to destroy her letters because he knew how brilliant they are. And Mrs. Browning, I believe, knew that her letters might be published one day. I suspect she wrote, especially to her literary correspondents, with this in mind. And she was amazingly prolific; Wedgestone Press predicts that the entire set of the Browning Correspondence will run to forty volumes. However, she specifically and angrily stated she wanted people to wait until she was dead before they picked through her letters.

I often tell people that Mrs. Browning's letter remind me of "Letters from 'Nam". She wrote to each person for that person. A specific audience. Her letters to her sisters for the most part stuck to family news, sisterly news. She didn't discuss literature and politics to a great extent with her sisters and she shaped her religious discussions with them to reflect what she could agree with them about, occasionally tossing in a recommended book that would help to explain her less than conventional views. Trying to explain the brilliance of George Sand she recommended the less her salacious offerings. Her letters to her brother George have a totally different tone. She wrote to her brother on a higher level, treating him as a brother to be teased but as an intellectual equal. Which is not to say that she wasn't willing to portray herself as a weak and feeble woman, if it was required. Her letter to George at the time of her marriage and retreat from Wimpole Street is brilliant. The tone is perfect, reflecting excellent reasoning. It is not overly emotional nor pleading. It did not work, George did not forgive her for several years, but I suspect that it wasn't the fault of the letter, but instead, the fact that George had to protect his own position in the Barrett household which kept him from embracing her life change. Another of her brilliant letters was written two months prior to her death, even as her letters to Arabel were reflecting her personal despair. She had submitted a poem to be published in Cornhill Magazine which was rejected on decency grounds by the editor William Makepiece Thackeray. Her response to him was clever and witty and defended her poem as highly moral,  simply addressing a difficult subject. It in no way reflected the personal turmoil she was emerging from nor her poor health and wonderfully illustrates how her letters are tailored to her audience.

I want to comment as well about our poets relationship after they left England. Miss Barrett's fears that Browning would be disappointed in her and that he would throw his life away taking care of her dogged her to the end. Her health did improve a great deal in the sun of Italy but she remained fragile and gradually she withdrew physically more and more. You can see glimpses of her frustration in her letters to her sisters. The couple were together so much you see the frayed edges, almost always touched on with humor. We saw glimpses of Browning's temper in the courtship letters--never directed to her. We also saw how Miss Barrett feared verbal confrontations of any kind. We see in Mrs. Browning's letters to Arabel that there were times when she had to explain her husband's ill humors and address Arabel's contention that they were always quarreling during their visit to England. There were periods where Mrs. Browning did not speak to her husband about certain topics, usually spiritualism but also politics. She also grew frustrated at her husband's careful way with money. He never wanted to be accused of milking his wife dry--he was so very scrupulous--and she did not care. She knew he was honest to a fault. He took care of her to the very end. He carried her everywhere. Her descriptions of him bundling her up against the cold and cramming her head first into the carriage like a very large package are wonderful examples of her light touch. At one point in Rome he had to carry her up 88 steps to their apartment. She was very tiny and he was very strong. (They also used a devise called "The Queens Chair" to get her up the stairs.) Some biographers try to contend that his poems reflect his disappointment in her and their relationship. I do not believe that. For a man who burned almost all of his personal letters to write poems about his frustration with his wife I find ridiculous. Of course his poems reflected life, but we can see that he was able to address all situations from many angles. I think some people are desperate to find a thesis for their dissertations. After her death he did begin addressing her in his poems but these poems suggest a mythification, a longing, a frustration with his own long life and finally an acceptance. He did not have much luck with women after his wife's death although I suspect he was an incorrigible flirt. He loved the attention of pretty ladies. What man doesn't? But what does this all add up to? They were normal. But extraordinarily normal. They had a extraordinarily normal marriage.

Now, I am going to take a bit of a break from the blog. I am not going to stop completely. There will be a special treat on February 20 that you can look forward to. It is the only extant letter written by Mrs. Browning to her husband after they left England in 1846. I won't tease you too much. I may even pop back in before that if I find something of interest. I was able to get volume 6 of the correspondence for next to no money on eBay. They are $110.00 a volume if you buy them new so I consider myself lucky to have gotten this volume for $16.00.

I also would like to thank the editors of the most recent edition of the courtship letters for not suing me for copyright infringement. The letters are in the public domain, you can get them on The Gutenberg Project website, but I suspect that I may have been in violation of some law. I used their footnotes to guide my research. A shocking admission I know.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

January 19, 1846

Browning rethinks his letter of the 18th, on the 19th:

"Monday Mg

Love, if you knew but how vexed I was, so very few minutes after my note left last night, how angry with the unnecessary harshness into which some of the phrases might be construed—you would forgive me, indeed– But, when all is confessed and forgiven, the fact remains—that it would be the one trial I know I should not be able to bear,—the repetition of those 'scenes'—intolerable—not to be written of, even—my mind refuses to form a clear conception of them–"
Browning would beat down Papa Barrett if he hurt Miss Barrett. Emotionally speaking, of course. Oh yeah, I think he might. Well, maybe not. But I like to think he would.


"My own loved letter is come—and the news,—of which the reassuring postscript lets the interrupted joy flow on again. Well, and I am not to be grateful for that,—nor that you do 'eat your dinner'?– Indeed you will be ingenious to prevent me! I fancy myself meeting you on 'the stairs'—stairs and passages generally, and galleries, (ah, those indeed!)—all, with their picturesque accidents, of landing-places, and spiral heights & depths, and sudden turns, and visions of half-open doors into what Quarles calls 'mollitious chambers'—and above all, landing-placesthey are my heart’s delight– I would come upon you unaware on a landing-place in my next dream! One day we may walk in the galleries round and over the inner-court of the Doges’ Palace at Venice,—and read, on tablets against the wall, how such an one was banished for an 'enormous dig (intacco) into the public treasure'—another for .. what you are not to know because his friends have got chisels and chipped away the record of it—underneath the 'giants' on their stands, and in the midst of the cortile [courtyard] the bronze fountains whence the girls draw water–"
Browning really does like this idea of wandering around passages and stairs looking for someone. There are two poems in Men and Women, published in 1855, which this passage make me think of. Love in a Life and Life in a Love both have this theme of chasing after someone.
Love in a Life
Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her,
Next time, herself!—not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew,— 
Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.

Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune— 
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest,—who cares?
But 'tis twilight, you see,—with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

Life in a Love

Escape me?
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth
While the one eludes, must the other pursue. My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And, baffled, get up and begin again,---
So the chase takes up one's life ' that's all. While, look but once from your farthest bound

At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope goes to ground
Than a new one, straight to the self-same mark,
I shape me---

But what is lasting love but a continual interest in the one you love, a constant ambition to remain in love and discover something new to love in your love?

"So you too wrote French verses?– Mine were of less lofty argument—one couplet makes me laugh now for the reason of its false quantity– I translated the Ode of Alcæus,—and the last couplet ran thus ..
Harmodius, et toi, cher Aristogĭton!
∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙
∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙ ∙
Comme l’astre du jour, brillera votre nom!
[Harmodious, and you too, dear Aristogiton!
 Your names will shine like the morning star!]

The fact was, I could not bear to hurt my French Master’s feelings—who inveterately maltreated 'αι’s and οι’s' and in this instance, an 'ει'– But 'Pauline' is altogether of a different sort of precocity—you shall see it when I can muster resolution to transcribe the explanation which I know is on the fly-leaf of a copy here– Of that work, the Athenæum said <…>—now, what outrageous folly,—I care, and you care, precisely nothing about its sayings and doings—yet here I talk!"
He crossed out a few lines of what the Athenæum 'said' about Pauline. I mean why bother? And how funny that he explains to her that Pauline is a 'different sort of precocity.' Indeed! She will see soon enough.

"Now to you—Ba! When I go thro’ sweetness to sweetness, at 'Ba' I stop last of all, and lie and rest. That is the quintessence of them all,—they all take colour and flavour from that– So, dear, dear Ba, be glad as you can to see me tomorrow– God knows how I embalm every such day,—I do not believe that one of the forty is confounded with another in my memory. So, that is gained and sure for ever. And of letters, this makes my 104th and, like Donne’s Bride, 'I take / My jewels from their boxes; call / My Diamonds, Pearls and Emeralds, and make / Myself a constellation of them all!'–Bless you, my own Beloved!"
Forty visits. From May to January that makes about eight a month. That's a pretty good pace for Mr. Barrett not to have caught on at all. No wonder he gets upset when she takes off with this Browning fellow. Who does he think he is? Mister Barrett trusted her. I wonder  what he thought was going on between these two when he was away in the city. Oh dear, think of the melancholy thoughts of his ruined daughter who had to run away with her lover. The shame of this failure of a father and protector. That is my attempt at advocacy for Mr. Barrett.

"—I am much better to-day—having been not so well yesterday—whence the note to you, perhaps! I put that to your charity for construction. By the way, let the foolish and needless story about my whilome friend be of this use, that it records one of the traits in that same generous lover of me, I once mentioned, I remember—one of the points in his character which, I told you, would account, if you heard them, for my parting company with a good deal of warmth of attachment to myself."
Mr. Footnote offers no help in telling us who this friend was who was so cruel to his wife, but apparently Miss Barrett knows who he is referring to.

What a day! But you do not so much care for rain, I think. My mother is no worse, but still suffering sadly.

Ever your own, dearest—ever–RB"
Well, we are back where I began this blog a year ago. We have met again, midpoint in the proceedings.

Friday, January 18, 2013

January 18, 1846

We get two letters to play with today. First, Miss Barrett is not happy with Chorley's review of Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics in The Athenæum:


Your letter came just after the hope of one had past—the latest saturday post had gone, they said: & I was beginning to be as vexed as possible, looking into the long letterless sunday. Then, suddenly came the knock—the postman redivivus .. just when it seemed so beyond hoping for––it was half past eight, observe .. & there had been a post at nearly eight—suddenly came the knock, & your letter with it. Was I not glad, do you think?"
I don't know. How vexed would it be possible for Miss Barrett to get? Would she throw the crockery and upset the table if she didn't get a letter?

"And you call the Athenæum 'kind & satisfactory'? Well—I was angry instead. To make us wait so long for an ‘article’ like that, was not over-kind certainly, nor was it 'satisfactory' to class your peculiar qualities with other contemporary ones, as if they were not peculiar. It seemed to me cold & cautious, .. from the causes perhaps which you mention .. but the extracts will work their own way with everybody who knows what poetry is, & for others, let the critic do his worst with them. For what is said of 'mist' I have no patience,—because I who know when you are obscure & never think of denying it in some of your former works, do hold that this last number is as clear & self sufficing to a common understanding, as far as the expression & medium goes, as any book in the world, & that Mr Chorley was bound in verity to say so. If I except that one stanza, you know, it is to make the general observation stronger. And then 'mist' is an infamous word for your kind of obscurity– You never are misty, not even in Sordello .. never vague. Your graver cuts deep sharp lines always—& there is an extra-distinctness in your images & thoughts, from the midst of which, crossing each other infinitely, the general significance seems to escape. So that to talk of a ‘mist,’ when you are obscurest, is an impotent thing to do—— Indeed it makes me angry."
First she was preparing to be vexed, now she is angry. Her discussion of Browning's obscurity not being 'misty' nor 'vague' may or may not be true. But note the vehemence. Her objection to this criticism may be valid, but hardly anger inducing. This is a demonstration of her loyalty and her constancy. She makes a more valid point in her next paragraph:

"But the suggested virtue of 'selfrenunciation' only made me smile, because it is simply nonsense .. nonsense which proves itself to be nonsense at a glance. So genius is to renounce itself .. that is the new critical doctrine, is it? Now is it not foolish? To recognize the poetical faculty of a man, & then to instruct him in 'selfrenunciation' in that very relation—or rather, to hint the virtue of it, & hesitate the dislike of his doing otherwise? What atheists these critics are after all—& how the old heathens understood the divinity of gifts, better, beyond any comparison. We may take shame to ourselves, looking back–"
If you are going to renounce yourself to make yourself more popular with the general reader, this is all well and good. However, if you choose not to, if you choose to create poetry that is not readily accessible for the general reader you must be prepared to be rejected by the general reader. You cannot then call the reviewers who write for a general readership 'fools'. I look at this in contrast to Browning's argument in favor of dueling. He argued that to live in society you must conform to societal norms. Miss Barrett strongly rejected this and felt that you must do what is morally correct, no matter the circumstance. She is consistent here with her argument that Browning must not renounce his 'genius' to conform to the ignorance of the public and the reviewers. Browning, of course, did attempt for a time to be more commercially viable and was still rejected and ultimately went his own way and came to public acceptance through the back door of romantic myth; revered by academia and mythologized by the reading public.

"Now, shall I tell you what I did yesterday. It was so warm, so warm, the thermometer at 68 in this room, that I took it into my head to call it April instead of January, & put on a cloak & walked down stairs into the drawing room .. walked, mind!– Before, I was carried by one of my brothers, .. even to the last autumn-day when I went out … I never walked a step for fear of the cold in the passages. But yesterday it was so wonderfully warm, & I so strong besides—it was a feat worthy of the day—& I surprised them all as much as if I had walked out of the window instead. That kind dear Stormie who with all his shyness & awkwardness has the most loving of hearts in him, said that he was ‘so glad to see me’!–

Well!—setting aside the glory of it, it would have been as wise perhaps if I had abstained .. our damp detestable climate reaches us otherwise than by cold, & I am not quite as well as usual this morning after an uncomfortable feverish night—not very unwell, mind, nor unwell at all in the least degree of consequence: & I tell you, only to show how susceptible I really am still, though 'scarcely an invalid' say the complimenters."
Well, well, this is a development. I wonder if she walked back up the stairs, for that can be the challenge. But an improvement. It is interesting to see her leak this information to Browning. From the way she words it it seems that he was unaware of the fact that she could not walk down the stairs. I wonder what his reaction to this information will be, both known and unknown. He knows she is an 'invalid' but I wonder if he knows the extent of her incapacity. I have to doubt it, given the very timid nature of their relationship.

"What a way I am from your letter .. that letter .. or seem to be rather—for one may think of one thing & yet go on writing distractedly of other things. So you are ‘grateful’ to my sisters .. you! Now I beseech you not to talk such extravagances,—I mean such extravagances as words like these imply—& there are far worse words than these, in the letter .. such as I need not put my finger on,—words which are sense on my lips but no sense at all on yours, & which make me disquietedly sure that you are under an illusion. Observe!—certainly I should not choose to have a 'claim' see! Only, what I object to, in ‘illusions’, ‘miracles’, & things of that sort, is the want of continuity common to such. When Joshua caused the sun to stand still, it was not for a year even!– Ungrateful, I am!"
See how she dissects each word and makes excruciating points? I do see the distinction that she is trying to make--that miracles and illusions are short term things. But here again--as with the objection to the description of Browning's poetry as 'misty'-- she seem to be overly semantic in her arguments. Picking nits as the older folks like to say. Yes, she does seem 'ungrateful' when she goes on that way. But here again, she is safe with Browning, he will never fault her, although he might get frustrated with her negative argumentation. She, however, can't help herself, she is humble to a fault.

"And 'pretty well' means 'not well' I am afraid—or I should be gladder still of the new act– You will tell me on tuesday what 'pretty well' means, & if your mother is better—or I may have a letter tomorrow ––dearest!– May God bless you!–

Tomorrow too, at half past three oclock, how joyful I shall be that my 'kind considerateness' decided not to receive you until tuesday. My very kind considerateness, .. which made me eat my dinner, today!–

Your own Ba–

A hundred letters I have, by this last, .. to set against Napoleon’s Hundred Days—did you know that?

So much better I am tonight! it was nothing but a little chill from the damp—the fog, you see!–"
She ends on a cheery note. What does Browning have to say for himself? OH NO! Another epic:
"Sunday Evening.
You may have seen, I put off all the weighty business-part of the letter—but I shall do very little with it now: to be sure, a few words will serve, because you understand me, and believe in enough of me– First then, I am wholly satisfied, thoroughly made happy in your assuranceI would build up an infinity of lives, if I could plan them, one on the other, and all resting on you, on your word– I fully believe in it,—of my feeling, the gratitude, let there be no attempt to speak. And for 'waiting',—'not hurrying',—I leave all with you henceforth—all you say is most wise, most convincing."
Browning is responding here to Miss Barrett's letter of the 15th in which she describes her father's reaction and presumed reaction to any move by his children into the married state. Her letter rather sets Browning off:
"On the saddest part of all,—silence. You understand, and I can understand thro’ you. Do you know, that I never used to dream unless indisposed, and rarely then—(of late I dream of you, but quite of late)—and those nightmare dreams have invariably been of one sort—I stand by (powerless to interpose by a word even) and see the infliction of tyranny on the unresisting—man or beast (generally the last)—and I wake just in time not to die: let no one try this kind of experiment on me or mine! Tho’ I have observed that by a felicitous arrangement, the man with the whip puts it into use with an old horse commonly: I once knew a fine specimen of the boilingly passionate, desperately respectable on the Eastern principle that reverences a madman—and this fellow, whom it was to be death to oppose, (some bloodvessel was to break)he, once at a dinner party at which I was present, insulted his wife (a young pretty simple believer in his awful immunities from the ordinary terms that keep men in order)—brought the tears into her eyes and sent her from the room .. purely to 'show off' in the eyes of his guests .. (all males, law-friends &c he being a lawyer.) This feat accomplished, he, too, left us with an affectation of compensating relentment, to 'just say a word and return'—and no sooner was his back to the door than the biggest, stupidest of the company began to remark 'what a fortunate thing it was that Mr So & So had such a submissive wife—not one of the women who would resist,—that is, attempt to resist—and so exasperate our gentleman into .. Heaven only knew what!'– I said it was, in one sense, a fortunate thing,—because one of those women, without necessarily being the lion-tressed Bellona [the goddes of war], would richly give him his desert, I thought– 'Oh, indeed? No—this man was not to be opposed, wait, you might, till the fit was over, and then try what kind argument could do'—and so forth to unspeakable nausea. Presently we went up-stairs—there sate the wife with dried eyes and a smile at the tea table—and by her, in all the pride of conquest, with her hand in his, our friend—disposed to be very good-natured of course– I listened arrectis auribus[with ears pricked]—and in a minute he said he did not know somebody I mentioned– I told him, that I easily conceived—such a person would never condescend to know him, &c, and treated him to every consequence ingenuity could draw from that text—and at the end marched out of the room,—and the valorous man, who had sate like a post, got up, took a candle, followed me to the door, and only said in unfeigned wonder, 'what can have possessed you, my dear B?' —All which I as much expected beforehand, as that the above-mentioned man of the whip keeps it quiet in the presence of an ordinary-couraged dog– All this is quite irrelevant to the case .. indeed, I write to get rid of the thought altogether: but I do hold it the most stringent duty of all who can, to stop a condition, a relation of one human being to another which God never allowed to exist between Him and ourselves– Trees live and die, if you please, and accept will for a law—but with us, all commands surely refer to a previously-implanted conviction in ourselves of their rationality and justice—or why declare that 'the Lord is holy, just and good' unless there is recognized and independent conception of holiness and goodness, to which the subsequent assertion is referable? 'You know what holiness is, what it is to be good? Then, He is that'—not, 'that is so—because he is that'; tho’, of course, when once the converse is demonstrated, this, too, follows, and may be urged for practical purposes– All God’s urgency, so to speak, is on the justice of his judgments, rightness of his rule: yet why? one might ask—if one does believe that the rule is his,—why ask further?– Because, his is a 'reasonable service', once for all–"
I love this: " stop a condition...which God never allowed to exist between Him and ourselves...but with us, all commands surely refer to a previously-implanted conviction in ourselves of their rationality and justice....Because, his is a 'reasonable service', once for all-" Hey, that Browning is a Christian and a Gentleman! The implications here are immense.
"Understand why I turn my thoughts in this direction—if it is indeed as you fear—and no endeavour, concession, on my part will avail, under any circumstances—(and by endeavour, I mean all heart & soul could bring the flesh to perform)—in that case, you will not come to me with a shadow past hope of chasing–
The likelihood is—I over frighten myself for you, by the involuntary contrast with those here—you allude to them—if I went with this letter downstairs and said simply 'I want this taken to the direction to-night—and am unwell & unable to go—will you take it now?' —My father would not say a word,—or rather would say a dozen cheerful absurdities about his 'wanting a walk', 'just having been wishing to go out' &c– At night he sits studying my works—illustrating them (I will bring you drawings to make you laugh)—and yesterday I picked up a crumpled bit of paper .. 'his notion of what a criticism on this last number ought to be,—none, that have appeared, satisfying him!'– So judge of what he will say!—(And my mother loves me just as much more as must of necessity be–)"
I have to say that Mr. Barrett would surely do the same for his daughter, I cannot imagine that he would not. It is a simple enough thing to mail a letter, but I get his drift: his family will support him no matter what; Miss Barrett lives under a will that will not bend to her need for marriage.
"Once more, understand all this .. for the clock scares me of a sudden—I meant to say more—far more.
But may God bless you ever—my own dearest, my Ba–
I am wholly your RB. (Tuesday)."
A strong letter from Browning with a little show of anger and frustration on his part. Perfectly understandable in the circumstances. Miss Barrett's reaction will, I am sure, soften the harsh tone.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

January 17, 1846

Browning sends the only letter today:


Did my own Ba, in the prosecution of her studies, get to a book on the forb .. no, unforbidden shelf—wherein Voltaire pleases to say that 'si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer [If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him]'?– I feel, after reading these letters, .. as ordinarily after seeing you, sweetest, or hearing from you .. that if marriage did not exist, I should infallibly invent it. I should say, no words, no feelings even, do justice to the whole conviction and religion of my soul—and tho’ they may be suffered to represent some one minute’s phase of it, yet, in their very fulness and passion they do injustice to the unrepresented, other minute’s, depth and breadth of love .. which let my whole life (I would say) be devoted to telling and proving and exemplifying, if not in one, then in another way—let me have the plain palpable power of this,—the assured time for this .. something of the satisfaction .. (but for the fantasticalness of the illustration) .. something like the earnest joy of some suitor in Chancery if he could once get Lord Lyndhurst into a room with him, and lock the door on them both, and know that his whole story must be listened to now, and the 'rights of it',—dearest, the love unspoken now you are to hear 'in all time of our tribulation, in all time of our wealth .. at the hour of death, and'—

If I did not know this was so,—nothing would have been said, or sought for—(your friendship, the perfect pride in it, the wish for, and eager co-operation in, your welfare, all that is different, and, seen now, nothing.)

I will care for it no more, dearest. I am wedded to you now– I believe no human being could love you more—that thought consoles me for my own imperfection—for when that does strike me, as so often it will,—I turn round on my pursuing self, and ask—'What if it were a claim, then,—what is in Her, demanded rationally, equitably, in return for what were in you—do you like that way?'—and I do not, Ba—you, even, might not—when people everyday buy improveable ground, and eligible sites for building, and don’t want every inch filled up, covered over, done to their hands! So take me, and make me what you can and will—and tho’ never to be more yours, yet more like you, I may and must be– Yes, indeed .. best, only love!"

He does go on and on sometimes trying to find some indefinable proof of his love. He does this in his poems too, going at a subject again and again trying to squeeze a proof out of his mind and onto the paper. It works here, in this setting, for this audience however, because she enjoys puzzling out his meanings. His questioning if there is a claim on her may be an attempt to suss out if there is a claim on her or simply him going over and over in his mind all possible scenarios or a proof that he is not worthy of her. He is certainly a constant wooer.

"And am I not grateful to your Sisters—entirely grateful for that crowning comfort,—it is 'miraculous', too, if you please—for you shall know me by finger-tip intelligence or any art magic of old or new times .. but they do not see me, know me—and must moreover be jealous of you, chary of you, as the daughters of Hesperus, of wonderers and wistful lookers up at the gold apple—yet instead of 'rapidly levelling eager eyes'—they are indulgent? Then .. shall I wish capriciously they were not your sisters, not so near you, that there might be a kind of grace in loving them for it? but what grace can there be when .. yes, I will tell you—no, I will not—it is foolish—and it is not foolish in me to love the table and chairs and vases in your room–"

The Hesperides were three nymphs who guarded the Garden of the Hesperides. Here is what Wikipedia say:

"The Garden of the Hesperides is Hera's orchard in the west, where either a single tree or a grove of immortality-giving golden apples grew. The apples were planted from the fruited branches that Gaia gave to her as a wedding gift when Hera accepted Zeus. The Hesperides were given the task of tending to the grove, but occasionally plucked from it themselves. Not trusting them, Hera also placed in the garden a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon named Ladon as an additional safeguard. However, in the mythology surrounding the Judgement of Paris, the Goddess of Discord Eris managed to enter the garden, pluck a golden apple, inscribe it 'To the most beautiful' (Ancient Greek: Kallistei) and roll it into the wedding party (which she had not been invited to), in effect causing the Trojan Wars."
In the myth of Hercules, he was given the task of stealing the apples and he supposedly slew the dragon, Ladon, to steal the apples. Browning as Hercules? She probably thought so.

Here is a nice depiction of the three nymphs by Frederick, Lord Leighton called The Garden of the Hesperides. Note the Golden Apples in the tree. Imagine the three Barrett sisters lounging so.

But why does he see Miss Barrett's sisters as jealous of her? Perhaps just to fit his own myth.

"Let me finish writing to-morrow; it would not become me to utter a word against the arrangement .. and Saturday promised, too—but though all concludes against the early hour on Monday, yet—but this is wrong—on Tuesday it shall be, then,—thank you, dearest! You let me keep up the old proper form, do you not?– I shall continue to thank, and be gratified &c as if I had some untouched fund of thanks at my disposal to cut a generous figure with on occasion! And so, now, for your kind considerateness thank you .. that I say, which God knows, could not say, if I died ten deaths in one to do you good, 'you are repaid'–

To-morrow I will write, and answer more– I am pretty well—and will go out to-day,—tonight. My Act is done, and copied—I will bring it. Do you see the Athenæum? By Chorley surely—and kind and satisfactory. I did not expect any notice for a long time—all that about the 'mist', 'unchanged manner' and the like is politic concession to the Powers that Be .. because he might tell me that and much more with his own lips or unprofessional pen, and be thanked into the bargain—yet he does not– But I fancy he saves me from a rougher hand—the long extracts answer every purpose."

Which just goes to show: there is what the writer thinks and there is what the writer says and there is what the writer writes.

"There is all to say yet—tomorrow!and ever, ever your own,—God bless you! RB

Admire the clean paper .. I did not notice that I have been writing on a desk where a candle fell! See the bottoms of the other pages!"

Good grief! Ink blots and candle grease. Browning is such a man.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 15, 1846

Browning has had Miss Barrett's letter upbraiding him for asking a cruel question and now we get his response. Could you stand the suspense?


Dearest, dearer to my heart minute by minute, I had no wish to give you pain, God knows. No one can more readily consent to let a few years more or less of life go out of account,—be lost—but as I sate by you, you so full of the truest life, for this world as for the next,—and was struck by that possibility, all that might happen were I away, in the case of your continuing to acquiesce .. dearest, it is horrible,—I could not but speak—if in drawing you, all of you, closer to my heart, I hurt you whom I would—outlive .. yes,—I cannot speak here—forgive me, Ba.

My Ba, you are to consider now for me: your health, your strength—it is all wonderful; that is not my dream, you know—but what all see: now, steadily care for us both—take time, take counsel if you choose; but at the end tell me what you will do for your part—thinking of me as utterly devoted, soul and body, to you, living wholly in your life, seeing good and ill, only as you see,—being yours as your hand is,—or as your Flush, rather. Then I will, on my side, prepare. When I say 'take counsel'—I reserve my last right, the man’s right of first speech. I stipulate, too, and require to say my own speech in my own words or by letter .. remember! But this living without you is too tormenting now. So begin thinking: as for Spring, as for a New Year, as for a New Life.–

I went no farther than the door with Mr Kenyon—& he must see the truth; and—you heard the playful words which had a meaning all the same.

No more of this; only, think of it for me, love!"
He turned that around beautifully. She upbraided him for daring to mention what she would do if anything happened to him and he used the opportunity to drive home the point he was really trying to make: she needed to get the heck out of her father's house, whether he was with her or not. Her health was improving and she needed to get moving. Excellent parry Browning.


"One of these days I shall write a long letter—on the omitted matters, unanswered questions, in your past letters: the present joy still makes me ungrateful to the previous one,—but I remember—we are to live together one day, love!

Will you let Mr Poe’s book lie on the table on Monday, if you please, that I may read what he does say, with my own eyes? That I meant to ask, too!

How too, too kind you are—how you care for so little that affects me! I am very much better—I went out yesterday, as you found: to-day I shall walk, beside seeing Chorley. And certainly, certainly I would go away for a week if so I might escape being ill (and away from you) a fortnight—but I am not ill—and will care, as you bid me, beloved! So, you will send, and take all trouble,—and all about that crazy Review! Now, you should not!– I will consider about your goodness. I hardly know if I care to read that kind of book just now."
He is handling all of her objections beautifully. But now he has an objection. She was upset about the thought of him dying, he is upset at the thought of her reading 'Pauline'. He is really embarrased by it:

"Will you, and must you have 'Pauline'? If I could pray you to revoke that decision! For it is altogether foolish and not boylike—and I shall, I confess, hate the notion of running over it—yet commented it must be,—more than mere correction! I was unluckily precocious—but I had rather you saw real infantine efforts .. (verses at six years old,—and drawings still earlier)—than this ambiguous, feverish—. Why not wait? When you speak of the 'Bookseller'—I smile, in glorious security—having a whole bale of sheets at the house-top: he never knew my name even!—and I withdrew these after a very little time."
Miss Barrett, who examines every word of his letters, must surely see that he does not want her to read 'Pauline'. I don't know about her, but it certainly makes me want to read it! And how happy he is to note that there is no chance of her getting a copy at the bookseller. The 'glorious security' of not being a best seller! For all of you thrill seekers, you can read 'Pauline' here, and see what Browning was embarrassed about. It is actually one of Browning's easier to understand works, which may be part of what embarrasses him: it's too revealing. For those who do not have an extra hour to spare here are the first few lines:
Pauline, mine own, bend o’er me—thy soft breast
Shall pant to mine—bend o’er me—thy sweet eyes,
And loosened hair, and breathing lips, arms
Drawing me to thee—these build up a screen
To shut me in with thee, and from all fear,
So that I might unlock the sleepless brood
Of fancies from my soul, their lurking place,
Nor doubt that each would pass, ne’er to return
To one so watched, so loved, and so secured.
But what can guard thee but thy naked love?
Well, you get the idea. Pretty sexy for a mid-Victorian. I don't think he relished the idea of Miss Barrett reading about some other woman's panting breast. But hey, he obviously prefers Miss Barrett's panting breast, so she shouldn't worry. He refers to Pauline's 'calm eyes' in this poem and Miss Barrett often refers to Browning as 'calm eyed' which makes me think he eventually let her read the poem. Modesty, they name is Browning.

"And now—here is a vexation: may I be with you (for this once) next Monday, at two instead of three o’clock? Forster’s business with the new Paper obliges him, he says, to restrict his choice of days to Monday next —and give up my part of Monday—I will never for fifty Forsters .. now, sweet, mind that! Monday is no common day, but leads to a Saturday .. and if, as I ask, I get leave to call at 2—and to stay till 3½—though I then lose nearly half an hour—yet all will be comparatively well. If there is any difficulty—one word and I re-appoint our party, his and mine,—for the day the paper breaks down—not so long to wait, it strikes me!

Now, bless you, my precious Ba– I am your own. —your own RB"

And next we hear from Miss Barrett who brings forth two letters today--well, they both get postmarked the same day anyway:

"Thursday morning.

Our letters have crossed; &, mine being the longest, I have a right to expect another directly, I think. I have been calculating,—& it seems to me .. now what I am going to say may take its place among the paradoxes, .. that I gain most by the short letters. Last week the only long one came last, & I was quite contented that the ‘old friend’ should come to see you on saturday & make you send me two instead of the single one I looked for: it was a clear gain the little short note, and the letter arrived all the same. I remember when I was a child, liking to have two shillings & sixpence better than half a crown—and now it is the same with this fairy money .. which will never turn all into pebbles, or beans .. whatever the chronicles may say of precedents.

Arabel did tell Mr Kenyon (she told me) that 'Mr Browning would soon go away' .. in reply to an observation of his, that ‘he would not stay as I had company’ .. & altogether it was better:—the lamp made it look late. But you do not appear in the least remorseful for being tempted of my black devil, my familiar, to ask such questions & leave me under such an impression—‘mens conscia recti [The consciousness of right]’ too!!–"
Well, she can't be too upset by his upsetting inquiry--she is teazing him about it. She obviously hasn't received the letter you just read. I had an idea when I read her letter that it was a bit of affectation on her part.

"And Mr Kenyon will not come until next Monday perhaps– How am I? But I am too well to be asked about. Is it not a warm summer? The weather is as ‘miraculous’ as the rest, I think– It is you who are unwell & make people uneasy, .. dearest– Say how you are, & promise me to do what is right & try to be better. The walking, the changing of the air, the leaving off Luria .. do what is right, I earnestly beseech you– The other day, I heard of Tennyson being ill again, .. too ill to write a simple note to his friend Mr Venables who told George. A little more than a year ago, it would have been no worse a thing to me to hear of your being ill than to hear of his being ill!– How the world has changed since then! To me, I mean."
I like that observation that only a year before news of a Browning illness would have brought no more than an aside--if that--in a letter to a friend.

"Did I say that ever .. that 'I knew you must be tired'—? And it was not even so true as that the coming event threw its shadow before?___________

Thursday night

I have begun on another sheet– I could not write here what was in my heart—yet I send you this paper besides to show how I was writing to you this morning. In the midst of it came a female friend of mine & broke the thread—the visible thread, that is.

And now, even now, at this safe eight oclock, I could not be safe from somebody, who, in her goodnature & my illfortune, must come & sit by me—& when my letter was come … 'why would’nt I read it? What wonderful politeness on my part, she would not & could not consent to keep me from reading my letter—she would stand up by the fire rather.'

No, no, three times no. Brummel got into the carriage before the Regent, .. (didnt he?) but I persisted in not reading my letter in the presence of my friend. A notice on my punctiliousness may be put down tonight in her ‘private diary’. I kept the letter in my hand & only read it with those sapient ends of the fingers which the mesmerists make so much ado about, & which really did seem to touch a little of what was inside. Not all, however, happily for me!– Or my friend would have seen in my eyes what they did not see.

May God bless you!– Did I ever say that I had an objection to read the verses at six years old .. or see the drawings either? I am reasonable you observe!– Only, ‘Pauline’, I must have some day– Why not without the emendations? But if you insist on them, I will agree to wait a little .. if you promise at last to let me see the book which I will not show .. Some day, then! you shall not be vexed, nor hurried for the day—some day—— Am I not generous? And I, was ‘precocious’ too, & used to make rhymes over my bread & milk when I was nearly a baby .. only really it was mere echo-verse, that of mine, & had nothing of mark or of indication, such as I do not doubt that yours had. I used to write of virtue with a large ‘V,’& ‘Oh Muse’ with a harp, & things of that sort. At nine years old I wrote what I called ‘an epic’—& at ten various tragedies, French & English, which we used to act in the nursery– There was a French ‘hexameter’ tragedy on the subject of Regulus—but I cannot even smile to think of it now, there are so many grave memories .. which time has made grave .. hung around it. How I remember sitting in 'my house under the sideboard,' in the diningroom, concocting one of the soliloquies beginning

'Qui suis je? autrefois un general Romain:
Maintenant esclave de Carthage je souffre en vain.'
[What am I? In the past a Roman general brave,
 In Carthage’ hands today a vainly suffering slave.]

Poor Regulus!– Cant you conceive how fine it must have been altogether? And these were my ‘maturer works,’ you are to understand, .. and 'the moon was bright at ten oclock at night' years before. As to the gods & goddesses, I believed in them all quite seriously, & reconciled them to Christianity, which I believed in too after a fashion, as some greater philosophers have done .. & went out one day with my pinafore full of little sticks, (& a match from the housemaids cupboard) to sacrifice to the blue eyed Minerva who was my favorite goddess on the whole because she cared for Athens. As soon as I began to doubt about my goddesses, I fell into a vague sort of general scepticism, .. & though I went on saying 'the Lord’s prayer' at nights & mornings, & the 'Bless all my kind friends' afterwards, by the childish custom .. yet I ended this liturgy with a supplication which I found in ‘King’s memoirs’ & which took my fancy & met my general views exactly .. 'O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul'. Perhaps the theology of many thoughtful children is scarcely more orthodox than this: but indeed it is wonderful to myself sometimes how I came to escape, on the whole, as well as I have done, considering the commonplaces of education in which I was set, with strength & opportunity for breaking the bonds all round into liberty & license. Papa used to say .. 'Dont read Gibbon’s history—it’s not a proper book– Dont read ‘Tom Jones’—& none of the books on this side, mind'– So I was very obedient & never touched the books on that side, & only read instead, Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, & Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, & Hume’s Essays, & Werther, & Rousseau, & Mary Woolstoncraft .. books, which I was never suspected of looking towards, & which were not 'on that side' certainly, but which did as well."
Miss Barrett's idea of ‘precocious’seems quite different from Browning's. Miss Barrett writes of childhood precocity, Browning's was a more mature model. It will be a nice surprise for her. But, as I said before, he is perfectly safe with her. It does not matter what he wrote, she will praise the poetic attempts and the brilliance of his conception.

"How I am writing!– And what are the questions you did not answer? I shall remember them by the answers I suppose—but your letters always have a fulness to me & I never seem to wish for what is not in them.

But this is the end indeed."
Well, it's the end of this letter, to continue in the next--apparently after she has read his letter which her visitor kept her from:
"Thursday Night.
Ever dearest—how you can write touching things to me,—& how my whole being vibrates, as a string, to these! How have I deserved from God & you all that I thank you for? Too unworthy I am of all! Only, it was not, dearest beloved, what you feared, that was 'horrible', .. it was what you supposed, rather! It was a mistake of yours. And now we will not talk of it any more."
Well, hopefully that will be the end of that. But I doubt it. She does like to teaze.
"Friday morning–
For the rest, I will think as you desire: but I have thought a great deal, & there are certainties which I know; & I hope we both are aware that nothing can be more hopeless than our position in some relations & aspects, though you do not guess perhaps that the very approach to the subject is shut up by dangers, & that from the moment of a suspicion entering one mind, we should be able to meet never again in this room, nor to have intercourse by letter through the ordinary channel. I mean, that letters of yours, addressed to me here, would infallibly be stopped & destroyed——if not opened. Therefore it is advisable to hurry on nothing—on these grounds it is advisable. What should I do if I did not see you nor hear from you, without being able to feel that it was for your happiness? What should I do for a month even? And then, I might be thrown out of the window or its equivalent– I look back shuddering to the dreadful scenes in which poor Henrietta was involved who never offended as I have offended .. years ago which seem as present as today. She had forbidden the subject to be referred to until that consent was obtained—& at a word she gave up all—at a word. In fact she had no true attachment, as I observed to Arabel at the time: a child never submitted more meekly to a revoked holiday. Yet how she was made to suffer– Oh, the dreadful scenes!—and only because she had seemed to feel a little. I told you, I think, that there was an obliquity [perversity of thought].. an eccentricity—or something beyond .. on one class of subjects. I hear how her knees were made to ring upon the floor, now! she was carried out of the room in strong hysterics, & I, who rose up to follow her, though I was quite well at that time & suffered only by sympathy; fell flat down upon my face in a fainting-fit. Arabel thought I was dead."
Wow, pretty dramatic. I would have loved to have seen that. While the idea of falling to your knees so hard as to ring seems fairly painful, with all those petticoats perhaps it sounded worse than it was. I suppose it was the brothers who had to haul Henrietta out of the room with all her arms and legs flailing and skirt and petticoats getting in the way of the doorjamb. And Ba falling on her face, boy howdy, there was no padding there. Only cool, collected Arabel stayed upright. Browning should have married Arabel, but then, she didn't have the requisite skill at praising his poetry (no matter what) and the guaranteed income of Miss Barrett. Just sayin'.
"I have tried to forget it all—but now I must remember—& throughout our intercourse I have remembered. It is necessary to remember so much as to avoid such evils as are evitable, & for this reason I would conceal nothing from you. Do you remember besides, that there can be no faltering on my 'part', & that, if I should remain well, which is not proved yet, I will do for you what you please & as you please to have it done. But there is time for considering!"
I am not so sure about that 'as you please to have it done' part. I think she means that in her way--that she will go with him if he wants her to--but the manner of it will be as she is pleased to have it done. Browning wanted to tell Mr. Barrett, in one way or another, and she would not have it.
"Only .. as you speak of ‘counsel’, I will take courage to tell you that my sisters know—. Arabel is in most of my confidences, & being often in the room with me, taxed me with the truth long ago—she saw that I was affected from some cause—& I told her. We are as safe with both of them as possible—& they thoroughly understand that if there should be any change it would not be your fault .. I made them understand that thoroughly. From themselves I have received nothing but the most smiling words of kindness & satisfaction (—I thought I might tell you so much:) they have too much tenderness for me to fail in it now. My brothers, it is quite necessary not to draw into a dangerous responsibility– I have felt that from the beginning & shall continue to feel it—though I hear, & can observe that they are full of suspicions & conjectures, which are never unkindly expressed. I told you once that we held hands the faster in this house for the weight over our heads. But the absolute knowledge would be dangerous for my brothers: with my sisters it is different, & I could not continue to conceal from them what they had under their eyes—and then, Henrietta is in a like position– It was not wrong of me to let them know it?—no?–
Yet of what consequence is all this to the other side of the question? What, if you should give pain & disappointment where you owe such pure gratitude——. But we need not talk of these things now. Only you have more to consider than I, I imagine, while the future comes on."
Browning has nothing to consider, it seems to me. His family supports him, I am sure all his family knows he is in love and engaged to Miss Barrett, he has no job, no responsibilities and he will be gaining an income by marrying Miss Barrett. The only thing that might hurt him is his reputation if Miss Barrett should die or her family makes a fuss. But what reputation? For a penniless poet it might enhance his standing to be a renegade. So, overall, I would say that Browning has nothing much to consider at all.
"Dearest, let me have my way in one thing: let me see you on tuesday instead of on monday—on tuesday at the old hour– Be reasonable & consider– Tuesday is almost as near as the day before it; & on monday, I shall be hurried at first, lest Papa should be still in the house, (no harm, but an excuse for nervousness! & I cant quote a noble Roman as you can, to the praise of my conscience!) & you will be hurried at last, lest you should not be in time for Mr Forster. On the other hand, I will not let you be rude to the Daily News,––no, nor to the Examiner– Come on tuesday, then, instead of monday, & let us have the usual hours in a peaceable way, .. & if there is no obstacle, … that is, if Mr Kenyon or some equivalent authority should not take note of your being here on tuesday, why you can come again on the saturday afterwards .. I do not see the difficulty. Are we agreed? On tuesday, at three oclock. Consider, besides, that the monday arrangement would hurry you in every manner, & leave you fagged for the evening—no, I will not hear of it. Not, on my account, not on yours!–
Think of me on monday instead, & write before. Are not these two lawful letters? And do they not deserve an answer?
My life was ended when I knew you, & if I survive myself it is for your sake:—that resumes all my feelings & intentions in respect to you. No 'counsel' could make the difference of a grain of dust in the balance. It is so, & not otherwise. If you changed towards me, it would be better for you I believe—& I should be only where I was before. While you do not change, I look to you for my first affections & my first duty—& nothing but your bidding me, could make me look away.
In the midst of this, Mr Kenyon came, & I felt as if I could not talk to him. No—he does not 'see how it is'. He may have passing thoughts sometimes, but they do not stay long enough to produce .. even an opinion. He asked if you had been here long.
It may be wrong & ungrateful, but I do wish sometimes that the world were away .. even the good Kenyon-aspect of the world.
And so, once more .. may God bless you!
I am wholly yours–
Tuesday, remember! And say that you agree."
So all is right with the world again. (No, I could not resist.)


Monday, January 14, 2013

January 14, 1846

Does Browning answer the charges of being a cad and making his lady cry in his letter today?


Was I in the wrong, dearest, to go away with Mr Kenyon? I well knew and felt the price I was about to pay .. but the thought did occur that he might have been informed my probable time of departure was that of his own arrival—and that he would not know how very soon, alas, I should be obliged to go—so .. to save you any least embarrassment in the world, I got—just that shake of the hand, just that look—and no more! And was it all for nothing, all needless after all? So I said to myself all the way home.

When I am away from you—a crowd of things press on me for utterance .. 'I will say them, not write them,' I think:—when I see you—all to be said seems insignificant, irrelevant,—'they can be written, at all events'—I think that too. So, feeling so much, I say so little!

I have just returned from Town and write for the Post—but you mean to write, I trust–

That was not obtained, that promise, to be happy with as last time!

How are you?—tell me, dearest—a long week is to be waited now!

Bless you, my own, sweetest Ba.

I am wholly your RB"
No, he does not respond to Miss Barrett's letter of the 13th! He must not have received it yet. And he writes on as if his only sin were leaving at the wrong time and the only crime was not getting his farewell snog. The tension builds. Can my heart stand the strain?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

January 13, 1846

January 13, 1846 Browning called on Miss Barrett in her room at Wimpole Street and they were interrupted in their tete a tete by Mr. Kenyon, who often ruins their fun. Miss Barrett did not like the tone of the meeting and wrote that evening to express her displeasure:

"Tuesday Night

Ah Mr Kenyon! how he vexed me today. To keep away all the ten days before, & to come just at the wrong time after all! It was better for you .. I suppose .. I believe .. to go with him down stairs—yes, it certainly was better! it was disagreeable enough to be very wise! Yet I, being addicted to every sort of superstition turning to melancholy, did hate so breaking off in the middle of that black thread .. (do you remember what we were talking of when they opened the door?) that I was on the point of saying 'Stay one moment', which I should have repented afterwards for the best of good reasons. Oh, I should have liked to have ‘fastened off’ that black thread, & taken one stitch with a blue or a green one!"
How shocking it would have been if Mr. Browning would have stayed for one moment more! Think of the gossip that would have spread around the drawing rooms of London!

"You do not remember what we were talking of? what you, rather, were talking of? And what I remember, at least, because it is exactly the most unkind & hard thing you ever said to me .. ever dearest—so I remember it by that sign!– That you should say such a thing to me—!—think what it was, for indeed I will not write it down here—it would be worse than Mr Powell! Only the foolishness of it (I mean, the foolishness of it alone) saves it, smooths it to a degree!—the foolishness being the same as if you asked a man where he would walk when he lost his head. Why, if you had asked St Denis beforehand, he would have thought it a foolish question."
This makes me laugh because I imagine Browning walking down the street at a brisk pace, reading this letter as he walks, thinking, "What did I say? I have no memory....hmmm....we were discussing the weather and the lack of flowers and she said something about her sister and I said my sister was the same way. What was it I was saying?"

"And you!—you, who talk so finely of never, never doubting,—of being such an example in the way of believing & trusting——it appears, after all, that you have an imagination apprehensive (or comprehensive) of 'glass bottles' like other sublunary creatures, & worse than some of them– For mark, that I never went any farther than to the stone-wall-hypothesis of your forgetting me!– I always stopped there—& never climbed to the top of it over the broken-bottle fortification, to see which way you meant to walk afterwards. And you, to ask me so coolly—think what you asked me. That you should have the heart to ask such a question!"
So Browning and I are trying to piece this together. In Browning's last letter (an epic) he was discussing the impossibility of his 'ceasing to love' and 'changing' (i.e. the only possibility would be if he lost his senses) and included this odd (although not for Browning) analogy: "A man may never leave his writing desk without seeing safe in one corner of it the folded slip which directs the disposal of his papers in the event of his reason suddenly leaving him—or he may never go out into the street without a card in his pocket to signify his address to those who may have to pick him up in an apoplectic fit—but if he once begins to fear he is growing a glass bottle, and, so, liable to be smashed,—do you see?" Okay, what in the heck did he ask her that was so upsetting. I mean what would come after her ceasing to love him? An affair with another man? Suicide and Death? I am at my wits end here. But she's not, on she goes.

"And the reason—! And it could seem a reasonable matter of doubt to you whether I would go to the south for my health’s sake—— And I answered quite a common ‘no’ I believe—for you bewildered me for the moment—& I have had tears in my eyes two or three times since, just through thinking back of it all .. of your asking me such questions. Now did I not tell you when I first knew you, that I was leaning out of the window? True, that was—I was tired of living .. unaffectedly tired. All I cared to live for was to do better some of the work which, after all, was out of myself & which I had to reach across to do. But I told you. Then, last year, .. for duty’s sake I would have consented perhaps to go to Italy!—but if you really fancy that I would have struggled in the face of all that difficulty, .. or struggled, indeed, anywise, to compass such an object as thatexcept for the motive of your caring for it & me .. why you know nothing of me after all—nothing!– And now, take away the motive .. & I am where I was .. leaning out of the window again. To put it in plainer words .. (as you really require information—) I should let them do what they liked to me till I was dead—only I would’nt go to Italy .. if anybody proposed Italy out of contradiction. In the meantime I do entreat you never to talk of such a thing to me any more."
Oh my heavens! He made her cry! The cad! Okay, so this leaning out of the window thing sounds to me like she was expecting death by falling (I jest, I jest) or death anyway. So now she is saying she would have consented to go to Italy? Really? I thought she fought very hard to go last year. Now she is saying  she simply would have consented 'perhaps' to go? Is this revisionist history? Ah, no, she is saying she would not have bothered to have fought to go but for him. Okay, I've got that. She is trying to make some distinction here that I am struggling with. I am guessing here with this melodramatic thrust of "I should let them do what they liked to me till I was dead—only I would’nt go to Italy..." that she didn't care a bit about Italy without him. Perhaps he was asking her if she would go to Italy without him if anything happened to him. I go back to her comment about looking over the stone wall beyond his ceasing to love her. What she sees 'beyond the stone wall' is death. I have it!!!
She does make things difficult. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Is all this angst 'put on' as a demonsration of her affection? Perhaps.
"You know, if you were to leave me by your choice & for your happiness, it would be another thing. It would be very lawful to talk of that– & observe! I perfectly understand that you did not think of doubting me .. so to speak!– But you thought, all the same, that if such a thing happened, I should be capable of doing so & so."
If he were to leave her of his own choice would be one thing--but for him to leave her due to his death--oh dear. I guess it is easier for her to contemplate her own death than his. So, if he was asking her if she would go to Italy without him after his death I can see how that may upset her. A bit. But she is carrying on so. So the cruelest, hardest thing he ever said to her was to consider that if in the event of his death she would go to Italy for her health anyway. She says she told him 'no' but it would have been a better teaze if she said 'yes, I will find me a fancy man to take me.' But she would never do that.

"Well– I am not quarrelling– I am uneasy about your head rather– That pain in it .. what can it mean? I do beseech you to think of me just so much as will lead you to take regular exercise everyday, never missing a day,—since to walk till you are tired on tuesday & then not to walk at all until friday, is not taking exercise, nor the thing required. Ah, if you knew how dreadfully natural every sort of evil seems to my mind, you would not laugh at me for being afraid. I do beseech you .. dearest!– And then, Sir John Hanmer invited you, besides Mr Warburton .. & suppose you went to him for a very little time .. just for the change of air? or if you went to the coast somewhere. Will you consider, & do what is right, for me? I do not propose that you should go to Italy, observe, nor any great thing at which you might reasonably hesitate. And .. did you ever try smoking as a remedy? If the nerves of the head chiefly are affected it might do you good, I have been thinking– Or without the smoking, to breathe where tobacco is burnt,—that calms the nervous system in a wonderful manner, as I experienced once myself when, recovering from an illness, I could not sleep, & tried in vain all sorts of narcotics & forms of hop-pillow & inhalation, yet was tranquillized in one half hour by a pinch of tobacco being burnt in a shovel near me. Should you mind it very much? the trying, I mean?"
She is becoming Miss Bossy Boots here.  First she beats him over the head for upsetting her and then she berates him for not taking enough exercise and then she wants to send him away. She is upset. And the idea of her, with her weak chest breathing tobacco smoke is a bit unnerving.

"Wednesday/ For Pauline .. when I had named it to you I was on the point of sending for the book to the booksellers—then suddenly I thought to myself that I would wait & hear whether you very, very much would dislike my reading it. See now! Many readers have done virtuously, but I, (in this virtue I tell you of) surpassed them all!– And now, because I may, I 'must read it'—: & as there are misprints to be corrected, will you do what is necessary, or what you think is necessary, & bring me the book on monday? Do not send—bring it—! In the meanwhile I send back the review which I forgot to give to you yesterday in the confusion– Perhaps you have not read it in your house, & in any case there is no use in my keeping it—.

Shall I hear from you, I wonder? Oh my vain thoughts, that will not keep you well!– And, ever since you have known me, you have been worse—that, you confess!,—& what if it should be the crossing of my bad star? You, of the ‘Crown’ & the ‘Lyre’, to seek influences from this ‘chair of Cassiopeia’!!. I hope she will forgive me for using her name so!– I might as well have—compared her to a professorship of poetry in the university of Oxford, according to the latest election. You know, the qualification, there, is, … not to be a poet.

How vexatious, yesterday! The stars (talking of them) were out of spherical tune, .. through the damp weather, perhaps—and that scarlet sun was a sign! First Mr Chorley!—& last, dear Mr Kenyon,—who will say tiresome things without any provocation. Did you walk with him his way, or did he walk with you yours? or did you only walk down stairs together?

Write to me! Remember that it is a month to monday– Think of your very own who bids God bless you when she prays best for herself!–


Say particularly how you are—now do not omit it. And will you have Miss Martineau’s books when I can lend them to you? Just at this moment I dare not, because they are reading them here.

Let Mr Mackay have his full proprietary in his ‘Dead Pan’—which is quite a different conception of the subject, & executed in blank verse too. I have no claims against him, I am sure!–

But for the man!—— To call him a poet! A prince & potentate of Commonplaces, such as he is!– I have seen his name in the Athenæum attached to a lyric or two .. poems, correctly called fugitive,—more than usually fugitive!—but I never heard before that his hand was in the prose department."
Ever the honest judge of poems, she dismisses the liable against Mr. MacKay who wrote the poem about Pan. She sees no plagiarism in his blank verse!
I can hardly wait to see Browning's response to this over-wrought letter. For all her excitement, she does seem to be in a fairly good humor. She just doesn't like the idea of Browning being dead.