Friday, January 4, 2013

January 4, 1846

Both Browning and Miss Barrett have a lot to say about Mr. Horne's newly published book of poems "Ballad Romances". Miss Barrett and Mr. Horne have been great friends for some time, writing and publishing together and planning to write together and not doing it. Let's first hear from Browning:

"Sunday Night.

Yesterday, nearly the last thing, I bade you 'think of me'– I wonder if you could misunderstand me in that?– As if my words or actions or any of my ineffectual outside-self should be thought of, unless to be forgiven! But I do—dearest—feel confident that while I am in your mind,—cared for, rather than thought about,—no great harm can happen to me—and as, for great harm to reach me, it must pass thro’ you,—you will care for yourself,—my self, best self!"

Oh boy, that was a good one. That Browning, what a metaphysician!

"Come, let us talk: I found Horne’s book at home, and have had time to see that fresh beautiful things are there—I suppose 'Delora' will stand alone still—but I got pleasantly smothered with that odd shower of wood-spoils at the end, the dwarf-story,—cup-masses and fern and spotty yellow leaves,—all that, I love heartily—and there is good sailor-speech in the 'Ben Capstan'—though he does knock a man down with a 'crow-bar'—instead of a marling-spike or, even, a belaying-pin! The first tale, tho’ good, seems least new and individual .. but I must know more– At one thing I wonderhis not reprinting a quaint clever real ballad, published before 'Delora', on the 'Merry Devil of Edmonton'—the first of his works I ever read—no, the very first piece was a single stanza, if I remember, in which was this line 'When bason-crested Quixote, lean and bold,' .. good, is it not? Oh, while it strikes me, good, too, is that Swineshead-Monk-ballad! Only I miss the old chronicler’s touch on the method of concocting the poison 'Then stole this Monk into the garden and under a certain herb, found out a Toad, which, squeezing into a cup,' &c something to that effect. I suspect, par parenthèse [incidentily], you have found out by this time my odd liking for 'vermin'—you once wrote 'your snails'—and certainly snails are old clients of mine—but efts!—Horne traced a line to me—in the rhymes of a '’prentice-hand' I used to look over and correct occasionally—taxed me (last week) with having altered the wise line 'Cold as a lizard in a sunny stream' to 'Cold as a newt hid in a shady brook'for 'what do you know about newts'? he asked of the author—who thereupon confessed. But never try and catch a speckled grey lizard when we are in Italy, love—and you see his tail hang out of the chink of a wall, his winter-house—because the strange tail will snap off, drop from him and stay in your fingers—and tho’ you afterwards learn that there is more desperation in it and glorious determination to be free, than positive pain—(so people say who have no tails to be twisted off)—and tho’, moreover, the tail grows again after a sort—yet .. don’t do it, for it will give you a thrill! What a fine fellow our English water-eft is,—'Triton paludis Linnæi'—e come guizza! [Triton of a Linnaean lake’—and how it darts!] —(that you can’t say in another language; cannot preserve the little in-and-out-motion along with the straight forwardness!)—I always loved all those wild creatures God 'sets up for themselves' so independently of us, so successfully, with their strange happy minute inch of candle, as it were, to light them,—while we run about and against each other with our great cressets and fire-pots. I once saw a solitary bee nipping a leaf round till it exactly fitted the front of a hole,—his nest, no doubt,—or tomb, perhaps—'Safe as Œdipus’s grave-place, ’mid Colone’s olives swart' [EBB's The Lost Bower]—(kiss me, my Siren!)—well, it seemed awful to watch that bee—he seemed so instantly from the teaching of God! Ælian says that .. a frog, does he say?—some animal, having to swim across the Nile, never fails to provide himself with a bit of reed, which he bites off and holds in his mouth transversely and so puts from shore gallantly .. because when the water-serpent comes swimming to meet him, there is the reed, wider than his serpent-jaws, and no hopes of a swallow that time—now fancy the two meeting heads, the frog’s wide eyes and the vexation of the snake!

Now, see! do I deceive you? Never say I began by letting down my dignity 'that with no middle flight intends to soar above the Aonian Mount!'–"

For all you blogileers who do not have at hand--an eft is an immature newt.
Browning reveals here that he is nothing but a male geek, loving all manner of wee beasties. I have a sneaking suspicion that Miss Barrett is a bit geeky too, in a lady-like way, having had a youth running about the English countryside. But more of that later.

"My best, dear, dear one,—may you be better, less depressed, .. I can hardly imagine frost reaching you if I could be by you. Think what happiness you mean to give me,—what a life,—what a death! 'I may change'—too true,—yet, you see, as an eft was to me at the beginning so it continues– I may take up stones and pelt the next I see—but—do you much fear that?– Now, walk, move, guizza, anima mia dolce [dart, my sweet soul]. Shall I not know one day how far your mouth will be from mine as we walk? May I let that stay .. dearest—(the line stay, not the mouth)."

Well, the image of Miss Barrett as a newt being pelted by Browning is not very comforting. But he tries to save it with a kiss. Do you think that will work? So he moves onto a different track:

"I am not very well to-day—or, rather, have not been so—now, I am well and with you– I just say that, very needlessly, but for strict frankness’ sake. Now, you are to write to me soon, and tell me all about yourself, and to love me ever, as I love you ever, and bless you, and leave you in the hands of God– My own love!"

Distracting her by telling her that he is unwell is always a good ploy, it takes her out of herself.

"Tell me if I do wrong to send this by a morning post—so as to reach you earlier than the evening—when you will .. write to me?

Don’t let me forget to say that I shall receive the Review to-morrow, and will send it directly."
The Review is where Browning and Miss Barrett will be reviewed together, which Browning thinks is highly romantic.
Well, we have heard Browning's random and wandering thoughts; more bugs than poetry. What does Miss Barrett have to say on the subject?
When you get Mr Horne’s book you will understand how, after reading just the first & the last poems, I could not help speaking coldly a little of it—& in fact, estimating his power as much as you can do, I did think & do, that the last was unworthy of him, & that the first might have been written by a writer of one tenth of his faculty. But last night I read the ‘Monk of Swineshead Abby’ & the ‘Three Knights of Camelott’ & ‘Bedd Gelert’ & found them all of different stuff, better, stronger, more consistent, & read them with pleasure & admiration. Do you remember this application, among the countless ones of shadow to the transiency of life? I give the first two lines for clearness–
‘Like to the cloud upon the hill
We are a moment seen
Or the shadow of the windmill-sails
Across yon sunny slope of green.’
New or not, & I dont remember it elsewhere, it is just & beautiful I think. Think how the shadow of the windmill-sail just touches the ground on a bright windy day! the shadow of a bird flying is not faster!– Then the ‘Three Knights' has beautiful things, with more definite & distinct images than he is apt to show—for his character is a vague grand massiveness .. like Stonehenge—or at least, if 'towers & battlements he sees' they are ‘bosomed high’ in dusky clouds .. it is a 'passion-created imagery' which has no clear outline. In this ballad of the ‘Knights’ , & in the Monks too, we may look at things, as on the satyr who swears by his horns & makes riot with his kind afterwards, ‘While, holding beards, they dance in pairs’ .. & that is all excellent & reminds one of those fine sylvan festivals, in Orion. But now tell me if you like altogether ‘Ben Capstan’ & if you consider the sailor-idiom to be lawful in poetry––because I do not indeed. On the same principle we may have Yorkshire & Somersetshire ‘sweet Doric’,—& do recollect what it ended in of old, in the Blowsibella heroines– Then for the elf story [The poem is 'The Elf of the Woodlands: a Child’s Story'] .. why should such things be written by men like Mr Horne? I am vexed at it. Shakespeare & Fletcher did not write so about fairies:—Drayton did not. Look at the exquisite Nymphidia, with its subtle sylvan consistency, & then at the lumbering course .. ‘machina intersit [let no god interfere]' .. Grandmama Grey! .. to say nothing of the ‘small dog’ that is’nt the ‘small boy’– Mr Horne succeeds better on a larger canvass, & with weightier material .. with blank verse rather than lyrics. He cannot make a fine stroke. He wants subtlety & elasticity in the thought & expression– Remember, I admire him honestly & earnestly. No one has admired more than I, the ‘Death of Marlowe’, scenes in Cosmo, & Orion in much of it– But now tell me if you can accept with the same stretched out hand all these lyrical poems? I am going to write to him as much homage as can come truly. Who combines different faculties as you do; striking the whole octave? No one, at present in the world."

That last line explains the whole paragraph: Browning has spoiled her for all other poets. She doesn't like Horne's sailor ballad (Browning did not like it because it does not include death by harpoon as opposed to the more lubberly crowbar) or his elf story, they both agree they did not like the first poem. But she does praise Horne where she will. She has never been shy about her opinions on poetry, be the writer friend of foe. (We will leave out Browning because he can do no wrong.)
"Dearest, after you went away yesterday & I began to consider, I found that there was nothing to be so over-glad about in the matter of the letters, for that, sunday coming next to saturday, the best now is only as good as the worst before, & I cant hear from you until monday .. monday! Did you think of that .. you who took the credit of acceding so meekly!– I shall not praise you in return at any rate. I shall have to wait .. till what oclock on monday,––tempted in the meanwhile to fall into controversy against the 'new moons & sabbath days' & the pausing of the post in consequence.
You never guessed perhaps .. what I look back to at this moment in the physiology of our intercourse, … the curious double feeling I had about you .. you personally, & you as the writer of these letters, .. & the crisis of the feeling, when I was positively vexed & jealous of myself for not succeeding better in making a unity of the two. I could not!– And moreover I could not help but that the writer of the letters seemed nearer to me, long .. long .. & in spite of the postmark .. than did the personal visitor who confounded me, & left me constantly under such an impression of its being all dream-work on his side, that I have stamped my feet on this floor with impatience to think of having to wait so many hours before the ‘candid’ closing letter cd come with its confession of an illusion. ‘People say’, I used to think, ‘that women always know .. & certainly I do not know .. & therefore .. therefore’– The logic crushed on like Juggernaut’s car. But in the letters it was different: the dear letters took me on the side of my own ideal life where I was able to stand a little upright & look round. I could read such letters for ever & answer them after a fashion .. that, I felt from the beginning. But you—!."

This little outburst is very interesting. Browning spoke to her of love in his letters, but not when they were together. I can see why this would be confusing. With just the words of the letters he could simply be producing a play or drama on paper. "Dream-work" as she calls it. I can not help but look back to the passage that he marked through in this letter of December 31st: "and then I seem to have said nothing of my feeling to you—nothing whatever: <Indeed I so far conform myself to your pleasure, as I understand it, as never to try, even, to express>." He seems hesitant to speak or "express" himself to her in person, which has made her doubtful as well. Two shy people trying to get together. Not always easy, but they certainly persistent.
"Monday. Never too early can the light come. Thank you for my letter!– Yet you look askance at me over ‘newt & toad,’ & praise so the Elf story that I am ashamed to send you my ill humour on the same head. And you really like that? admire it? Grandmama Grey & the night caps & all? & 'shoetye & blue sky'? --and is it really wrong of me … to like certainly some touches & images, but not the whole, .. not the poem as a whole? I can take delight in the fantastical, & in the grotesque—but here there is a want of life & consistency, as it seems to me!—the elf is no elf & speaks no elf-tongue! it is not the right key to touch, .. this, .. for supernatural music. So I fancy at least—but I will try the poem again presently. You must be right—unless it should be your over-goodness opposed to my over-badness– I will not be sure. Or you wrote perhaps in an accidental mood of most excellent critical smoothness, such as Mr Forster did his last Examiner in, when he gave the all-hail to Mr Harness as one of the best dramatists of the age!! Ah no!—not such as Mr Forster’s. Your soul does not enter into his secret—there can be nothing in common between you. For him to say such a word—he who knows—or ought to know!—— And now let us agree & admire the bowing of the old minstrel over 'Bedd Gelert’s' unfilled grave–
‘The long beard fell like snow into the grave
With solemn grace’.
A poet, a friend, a generous man Mr Horne is, even if no laureate for the fairies.

Uh oh. I predict that Browning will totally agree with Miss Barrett on the subject of Horne's poetry. It is inevitable.
I have this moment a parcel of books viâ Mr Moxon—Miss Martineau’s two volumes—& Mr Bailey sends his ‘Festus’ very kindly, .. & 'Woman in the nineteenth century' from America from a Mrs or a Miss Fuller– How I hate those ‘Women of England’ ‘Women & their mission’ & the rest– As if any possible good were to be done by such expositions of rights & wrongs.
Your letter would be worth them all, if you were less you! I mean, just this letter, .. all alive as it is with crawling buzzing wriggling cold-blooded warm-blooded creatures .. as all alive as your own pedant’s book in the tree. And do you know, I think I like frogs too—particularly the very little leaping frogs, which are so highhearted as to emulate the birds. I remember being scolded by my nurses for taking them up in my hands & letting them leap from one hand to the other. But for the toad!—why, at the end of the row of narrow beds which we called our gardens when we were children, grew an old thorn, & in the hollow of the root of the thorn, lived a toad, a great ancient toad, whom I, for one, never dared approach too nearly. That he ‘wore a jewel in his head’ I doubted nothing at all– You might see it glitter if you stooped & looked steadily into the hole. And on days when he came out & sate swelling his black sides, I never looked steadily,—I would run a hundred yards round through the shrubs, deeper than knee-deep in the long wet grass & nettles, rather than go past him where he sate,—being steadily of opinion in the profundity of my natural history-learning, that if he took it into his toad’s head to spit at me I should drop down dead in a moment, poisoned as by one of the Medici.
Oh—and I had a field-mouse for a pet once, & should have joined my sisters in a rat’s nest if I had not been ill at the time: (as it was, the little rats were tenderly smothered by over-love!) and blue-bottle flies I used to feed, & hated your spiders for them,—yet no, not much. My aversion proper .. call it horror rather .. was for the silent, cold, clinging, gliding bat,—& even now, I think, I could not sleep in the room with that strange bird-mouse-creature, as it glides round the ceiling silently, silently as its shadow does on the floor– If you listen or look, there is not a wave of the wing—the wing never waves! A bird without a feather!—a beast that flies!—and so cold!—as cold as a fish!– It is the most supernatural-seeming of natural things– And then to see how when the windows are open at night those bats come sailing .. without a sound—& go .. you cannot guess where!—fade with the night-blackness!"

Aren't bats wonderful? I love them. Although I do fear the rabies in them. I bet Browning had a thing for bats too, they are just the type of thing male geeks like.
"You have not been well—which is my first thought if not my first word. Do walk, & do not work,—& think .. what I could be thinking of, if I did not think of you .. dear, dearest! ‘As the doves fly to the windows,’ so I think of you! As the prisoners think of liberty, as the dying think of Heaven, so I think of you. When I look up straight to God .. nothing, no one, used to intercept me—now there is you—only you under Him! Do not use such words as those therefore any more, nor say that you are not to be thought of so & so– You are to be thought of every way. You must know what you are to me if you know at all what I am,—& what I should be but for you.
So .. love me a little, with the spiders & the toads & the lizards! love me as you love the efts—and I will believe in you as you believe .... in Ælian– Will that do?
Your own–
Say how you are when you write—& write."

They certainly covered the topics today. Tomorrow we will look at what each actually wrote to Horne about his poems. That will certainly be educational.

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