Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January 1, 1846

Miss Barrett mis-dates her News Years letter, which is common for most of us at least once a year. But who is to notice except transcribers who note that the correct date is found on the postmark.

Jan. 1. 1845. [sic, for 1846]

"How good you are—how best! It is a favorite play of my memory to take up the thought of what you were to me (to my mind gazing!) years ago, as the poet in an abstraction .. then the thoughts of you .. a little clearer, in concrete personality, as Mr Kenyon’s friend, who had dined with him on such a day, or met him at dinner on such another, & said some great memorable thing ‘on wednesday last’,& enquired kindly about me perhaps on thursday, .. till I was proud! .. & so, the thoughts of you .. nearer & nearer (yet still far!) as the Mr Browning who meant to do me the honor of writing to me, & who did write; & who asked me once in a letter (does he remember?) 'not to lean out of the window while his foot was on the stair'! .. to take up all those thoughts, & more than those, one after another, & tie them together with all these, which cannot be named so easilywhich cannot be classed in botany & Greek. It is a nosegay of mystical flowers, looking strangely & brightly, .. & keeping their May-dew through the Christmases—better even than your flowers!—And I am not ‘ashamed’ of mine, .. be very sure! no!"
1845 was quite a year for Miss Barrett, she may well celebrate the progression of the year. And she cannot so easily name her thoughts.

"For the siren, I never suggested to you any such thing—why you do not pretend to have read such a suggestion in my letter certainly. That would have been most exemplarily modest of me! would it not, O Ulysses?"
Perhaps she didn't mean it that way, but that is what it brought to his mind. She is his Siren.

And you meant to write, .. you meant!—& went to walk in ‘Poets’ lane’ instead, (in the 'Aonius of Highgate,') which I remember to have read of—does not Hunt speak of it in his memoirs?—& so now there is another track of light in the traditions of the place, & people may talk of the pomegranate-smell between the hedges. So you really have hills at New Cross, & not hills by courtesy? I was at Hampstead once—& there was something attractive to me in that fragment of heath with its wild smell, thrown down .. like a Sicilian rose from Proserpine’s lap when the car drove away, .. into all that arid civilization, 'laurel-clumps & invisible visible fences', as you say!—& the grand, eternal smoke rising up in the distance, with its witness against nature!– People grow severely in jest about cockney landscape—but is it not true that the trees & grass in the close neighbourhood of great cities, must of necessity excite deeper emotion than the woods & valleys will, a hundred miles off .. where human creatures ruminate stupidly as the cows do .. the ‘county families’ es-chewing all men who are not ‘landed proprietors’ .. & the farmers never looking higher than to the fly on the uppermost turnip-leaf! Do you know at all what English country-life is, which the English praise so, & ‘moralize upon into a thousand similies’, as that one greatest, purest, noblest thing in the world .. the purely English & excellent thing?– It is to my mind simply & purely abominable, & I would rather live in a street than be forced to live it out, .. that English country-life,—for I dont mean life in the country. The social exigencies .. why, nothing can be so bad—nothing!– That is the way by which Englishmen grow up to top the world in their peculiar line of respectable absurdities."
She honors Browning with the notion that one day people will include him in the same pantheon with Keat and Shelley by the scent of Pomegranate in the country lane. Aonia was the dwelling place of the Muses. She refers to the abduction of Proserpine (Persephone in the Greek) by Pluto.  She had been gathering flowers in the plains of Enna when Pluto grabbed her and took her into the underworld in his chariot.
Miss Barrett's reference to this particular myth is not, I think, random. Pop over here to read a summary of the myth. Proserpine's mother Cere's was the goddess of the Earth and she demanded that Proserpine be returned and began turning the earth into a desert until her daughter was returned. Jupiter ordered Pluto to give up Proserpine, but Pluto forced Proserpine to eat pomegranate seeds (the seeds of death) so that she could not return to the land of the living permanently. Proserpine's return is the spring and the summer and when she returns to the underworld the earth begins to die again. In some versions of the story Proserpine eats the seeds voluntarily. Also of interest is that Mary and Percy Shelley wrote a child's play about Proserpine, so of course Browning was very familiar with the story on that front, although both our poets were more than well versed in the classics. So, while Browning may have thought of Miss Barrett as Andromeda, perhaps she saw herself as Proserpine.
And, no, she does not appear to enjoy the stress of country society. I doubt she would like the stress of urban society either. She very carefully avoids it.

"Think of my talking so as if I could be vexed with any one of them! I!– On the contrary I wish them all a happy new year to abuse one another, or visit each of them his nearest neighbour whom he hates, three times a week, because ‘the distance is so convenient,’ .. & give great dinners in noble rivalship: (venison from the Lord Lieutenant against turbot from London!) & talk popularity & gamelaws by turns to the tenantry, & beat down tythes to the rector. This glorious England of ours,—with its peculiar glory of the rural districts!!– And my glory of patriotic virtue, who am so happy in spite of it all .. & make a pretence of talking .. talking .. while I think the whole time of your letter. I think of your letter—I am no more a patriot than that!–

May God bless you, best & dearest! You say things to me which I am not worthy to listen to for a moment, .. even if I were deaf dust the next moment .. I confess it humbly & earnestly as before God.

Yet He knows, .. if the entireness of a gift means anything, .. that I have not given with a reserve—that I am yours in my life & soul, for this year & for other years. Let me be used for you rather than against you!—& that unspeakable, immeasurable grief of feeling myself a stone in your path, a cloud in your sky .. may I be saved from it!—pray it for me .. for my sake rather than yours. For the rest, I thank you, I thank you. You will be always to me, what today you are—& that is all!––I am your own–"
Forever, in her mind, she will remain unworthy of him. She is the perfect woman. For Browning.

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