905. EBB to Mary Russell Mitford
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 5, 224–226.
[?31] Jany. 1842
I hasten to say my dearest friend, how glad I shall be, how proud I shall be .. what is the right word? .. to hear from your Mrs Niven both because she is yours & is as you describe her. Do tell her that I cd but feel it as a condescension from any person of that degree of acquirement, of that high cultivation, to take any notice of such an imperfect production as this hard dry unvital translation of mine stands confest to be, in the eyes of its own performer. It is not scholastically that I am so ashamed of it .. but poetically. It is correct enough as far as the letter goes—but otherwise I am only surprised that Æschylus does not dog me with his spirit-dog, as he himself might call his soul. But he does’nt think it worthwhile.
I say none of this out of mock-humility—you will do me the justice to believe so. I have heard that Mrs Coleridge said of my translation (Coleridge’s daughter!)—“It is a creditable attempt to do what is impossible.” I myself wd say far less of it—for I know how much better it cd be done. Even I cd do it better now. Coleridge himself, or Shelley had done it well—they wd at least have drawn from the admitted “impossibility,” a grand possible. What Mrs Niven wd do me the honor of writing about, is not worth her reading.
My dearest friend—it was my inconsiderateness & not yours which is to blame. You were true to nature (as you always are & wd lose a hundred charms by being less so) in obeying the impulse of a full heart & writing on the back of the letter. But I, in cold blood, had no business to tell you that the notice had frightened me! Forgive it, my beloved friend! And pray—for my sake—dont try to improve those delightful faults of yours in virtue of which you are ours to love & Nature’s to claim—“a lady of her own”. Why, if you were all smooth angel, how shd our hearts hold on to you? Consider us a little—do! I am a conservative as concerns you—not a reformer! May God bless you my dearest friend!–
I am very sorry about the cough—but I hope for another change before this lovely sun! Does the weather affect the cramp? Oh—may you be more easy at heart very soon!
It seems to me that my Flush likes London very much indeed, from his playful leaping spirits which scarcely become those reverent two years he has almost touched. In the meanwhile, his appetite is perhaps rather better—that is, he signifies a gracious assent to the acceptance of my muffin rather oftener than he used to do. But he is as particular as ever as to what he accepts besides—& objects (even sometimes unto fasting) to taking his dinner alone, when everybody else has done dining. There is also a manifest expansion of soul towards ratafies, spunge cake, barley-sugar & things of that sort—the enunciation of the word ‘cakes’ producing an obvious & sudden dilation of the eyes & agitation of the tail. He lies by me night & day as usual .. growing certainly prettier—& certainly not fatter—& winning everybody’s heart without any loss of personal dignity. As to Papa—why, think of Papa’s saying when he is’nt here—“Where’s Flush? I miss Flush. I want him to teaze.” Now there’s a compliment, never paid before to dog!–
Is Mrs Niven eloquent after the manner of Lady Mary Shepherd? declamatory? or conversational? I like that “sweet serenity” when as you say, there is no insipidity—& when, as I say, there is no conventional habitude to enforce it, or no insensibility to secure it. Serene, impassible people who never think or feel to their outsides, are an abomination—& the insipid school is more abundant & scarcely less odious. The serenity born of a right balance in the intellects & affections, is a beautiful thing & rare.
As for the ancient languages, or any acquirement in the particular department of languages, you cant think how little I care for it. It puts me out of patience to see people glorying, evidently however silently, in the multitudes of grammars, when the glorious rich literature of our own beloved England lies by their side without a look or a sigh that way. And then a dictionary life is the vainest & least exalting of lives. No occupation claims the time which the acquisition of a language does, with an equal non-requital to the intellect. I observe that .. & have set my face against linguaism .. except to certain ends, & with certain means .. for there are you know, peculiar aptitudes to languages, which like other talents cry out for cultivation. For my own part, my learning Greek was a child’s fancy .. achieved for Homer’s sake; & for Homer’s sake, .. that is, for poetry’s generally, I have never repented one year of my hard working ones. Latin was admitted as a helper—& my little stock of Hebrew, long after, as a distraction in low spirits. But—oh to look round, & measure the high estate of the Greek & Latin man, & then yours!!
Well—but your Mrs Niven is something better than a mere Greek & Latin woman. I quite fancy from your sketch how delightful she must be: &, that she is able to appreciate you, so as to go every year to Reading for the purpose of having your society, though by no means a strange thing, yet helps me to appreciate her, beyond all the rest. For oh my dearest Miss Mitford .. you do .. you see .. there is no denying it .. you do so dilate your friends .. you do thrust such greatness upon them, whether they be or be not born to greatness! Dont, I beseech you, tell her any fairy tales about me! I beseech you, untell them, my beloved friend!
Give my love to Dr Mitford!—to Flush too! Dear little Flush. I want to see him very much. I shall in the spring—shall I not. And this is just February. In three weeks, I shall call it Spring.
Did I ever tell you how many of Irving’s disciples, are friends of mine—even relatives—cousins? Oh I assure you I have apostles prophets & angels belonging to me!– But they are not strict in the manner you describe. At least I know that one mature angel, above forty &, I mention the age that you should not attribute the act to any heterodox flightiness of youth .. that one real mature angel borrowed Pickwick from this very house, not long ago, “for the purpose of relaxation.” Books such as angels read .... shd you have said so of Pickwick before you heard my story?
Publication: EBB-MRM, I, 338–341.
Manuscript: Folger Shakespeare Library and Wellesley College.
1. At the conclusion of the letter, EBB says “this is just February”, suggesting that it was commenced on the last day of January.
2. Prometheus Bound.
3. This was apparently the opinion conveyed to EBB by Kenyon, mentioned in letter 654.
4. In a letter of 27 February 1845 to RB, EBB said she had completed a new translation, except for a “last polishing.”
5. A reference to Miss Mitford’s note regarding the failure of opium (see letter 904).
6. Cf. Wordsworth, “Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower” (1800), line 6.
7. Underscored three times.
8. Cf. Twelfth Night, II, 5, 145–146.
9. i.e., the Bayfords.
10. Cf. Paradise Lost, I, 620.