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.

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