1128. EBB to Mary Russell Mitford
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 6, 291–294.
Jan. 15. 1843–
My dearest friend, do believe (to go on where I left off) that Fame, reputation, the recognition of a master-power available for goodness or for truth, I undervalue as little as anyone in the world, & never did undervalue. Perhaps, if the secret hearts of us were beheld, I value it even more than you do—I think I do. I think, for instance, that you, as your Miss Austen did & as Mrs Radcliffe did, care more for the respect paid to you on mere social grounds, than you care for any acknowledgement of your power as a writer & on literary grounds. I think that you have a sort of satisfaction in saying “People do not talk literature to me”—or ‘people like me for myself better than they do for my books’. I think moreover, that you have a tendency to laugh to scorn, as far as your goodness & dearness of nature will let you, the pain of that wrestling for merited distinction under which so many great hearts have groaned aloud .. I think your tendency is to doubt the reality of this sort of pain, just as you say that mine is to underrate poverty-pains. I think that in any case, you cannot estimate the real price of real fame above my estimation ..
‘Fame is the spur which the clear spirit doth raise’,
and raises it high!
But—oh my dearest friend, is not real fame, Milton’s fame, different from the pseudo shadow called by men popularity? And is it not an historical fact & worthy of all consideration, that poets who have leapt into popularity have generally perished from fame? And have not true poets who have also become popular poets at once, been so for reasons independent of their poetry .. & even of their powers? Was not Byron’s popularity (& he was a true genius though Mr Sergt Talfourd refuse ten times to turn the patronage of his eyelids upon Manfred’s castle) owing in great measure to his worst faults—& then again, to his stories & eloquence .. things apart from his poetical genius?– I think so—it appears to me so– My beloved friend, if I had the power you wd dream for me, & double that, I shd not even then be indifferent to praise; because I never pretend to that virtue, (or vice?) of such indifference,—but I never wd write a line nor unwrite a line with the intent of being popular among a contemporaneous public. Here is a fact! The Revd Robert Montgomery is at this moment, as far as the sale of books can prove anything, .. & it certainly proves success with the multitude, .. the most popular poet in England. Even Wordsworth after more than half a century of conflict, cannot talk of eighteenth editions. Robert Montgomery is the most popular poet. Poet?—“poet-ape” Sir Phillip Sidney would call him. Do you know his “poetry”?—the sound & fury of it, & nothingness of signification? He is the most popular poet in our England! And this is the meaning & worth of ‘popularity!’–
I mean to make you value more Mr Browning; so I am going to send you with Madme de Genlis’ Alphonsine, Heinrich Stilling’s Autobiography which you must keep for my sake, & Browning’s last Belles & Pomegranates. Certain of the poems shd not, I think, have been published,—but several of them are very fine & individual—‘original’, my dearest friend, according to my impression & conviction. They are at least new to me. We must speak after our experience– And in relation to this subject, as I read this very morning Schindler’s interesting memoirs of Beethoven, .. that true genius Beethoven––that Goëthe of music—(you do justice to Beethoven’s genius I am certain,) .. I came upon these words—“Beethoven always bore in mind that a Mozart had preceded him & that another might follow him. He ever cherished high expectations of the future, for he fervently believed in the omnipotence of the Creator & the inexhaustibility of Nature”.
Now that is just my creed—and I do believe that when you wrote what you did about the exhaustion of originality generally, some naughty body or mind (mine perhaps!) had been teazing you with commonplaces into an utter despair of the possibility of anything better– Confess, my beloved friend! Now was’nt it so?
As for all you say about me in particular—about the want of clearness, & the propriety of blotting & burning pretty freely, I confess it all. You are always right my dearest friend,—you always must be when you blame me—& I am always frightened when you do—because the faults which you see must be large indeed. You wd have thrown me into despair by the “originality” remark, if you had not applied it also to Tennyson—else, I shd have died on the point of the knife– I think I will send the note to Mr Whittaker—yet I tremble—& not with cold—for all the frostiness in the air.
Which reminds me that dear kind Mr Kenyon brought me,—with his own hands, carried to the door yesterday morning,—a little pot of primroses half in bud, half in bloom! Was’nt it very kind? For a larger generosity, did I tell you that he had sent to the artist of the new Ecce homo, double the price set upon it? That was an act worthy of Mr Kenyon!
He has purchased for his brother a house in York Place Regent’s Park, the back of which faces his own in Harley Place. Now I flatter myself that a back facing is rather an “original ....” figure!
No more today, my dearest friend!– Do not let me trouble you, be a cause of trouble to you, in the matter of writing letters. You must have so much to do, that I am aware you spend far too much time on me—& when they
‘come, in spite of sorrow
And at my window bid good morrow’
I ought often to wish (when I dont) that they wd stay away–
No—do not write when you have other engagements on your right & left hands. I will not be uneasy—if I can help it. May God bless you always.
Address: Miss Mitford / Three Mile Cross / near Reading.
Publication: EBB-MRM, II, 161–163.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. EBB, who declared herself to be “a worshipper of Mrs. Radcliffe” after reading the first part of The Mysteries of Udolpho (Diary, p. 51), was less enthusiastic than Miss Mitford about the talents of Jane Austen.
2. Milton, “Lycidas” (1638), line 70.
3. See letter 1032 for an earlier reference to this incident.
4. See letters 1058 and 1065 for EBB’s estimation of Montgomery’s poetical abilities.
5. Sir Philip Sidney, in An Apologie for Poetrie (1595) said “the cause why it [Poesy] is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets” (p. 141 in Geoffrey Shepherd’s 1965 edition).
6. Cf. Macbeth, V, 5, 27–28.
7. The Life of Beethoven by Anton Felix Schindler (1795–1864) was translated and edited by Ignace Moscheles in 1841. This passage can be found at II, 174.
8. Miss Mitford’s note to Whittaker regarding the possibility of his undertaking to publish EBB’s projected volume of poetry (see letter 1118).
9. See letter 1126 for EBB’s opinion of the work.
10. Milton, “L’Allegro” (1645), lines 45–46.