1816.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 25–27.

50 Wimpole Street.

Jan. 15. 1845.

Dear Mr Browning

The fault was clearly with me & not with you.

When I had an Italian master, years ago, he told me that there was an unpronounceable English word which absolutely expressed me, & which he wd say in his own tongue as he could not in mine, .. ‘testa lunga.’ Of course the signor meant headlong![1]—and now I have had enough to tame me, & might be expected to stand still in my stall. But you see I do not. Headlong I was at first, & headlong I continue—precipitously rushing forward through all manner of nettles & briars instead of keeping the path,—guessing at the meaning of unknown words instead of looking into the dictionary .. tearing open letters, & never untying a string,—& expecting everything to be done in a minute, & the thunder to be as quick as the lightning. And so, at your half word I flew at the whole one, with all its possible consequences, & wrote what you read. Our common friend, as I think he is, Mr Horne, is often forced to entreat me into patience & coolness of purpose,—though his only intercourse with me has been by letter. And, by the way, you will be sorry to hear that during his stay in Germany he has been ‘headlong,’ (out of a metaphor) twice,—once, in falling from the Drachenfells, when he only just saved himself by catching at a vine,—and once quite lately, at Christmas, in a fall on the ice of the Elbe in skating, when he dislocated his left shoulder in a very painful manner.[2] He is doing quite well I believe—but it was sad to have such a shadow from the German Christmas tree, & he a stranger.

In Art, however, I understand that it does not do to be headlong, but patient & laborious—& there is a love strong enough, even in me, to overcome nature. I apprehend what you mean in the criticism you just intimate, & shall turn it over & over in my mind until I get practical good from it. What no mere critic sees, but what you, an artist, know, is the difference between the thing desired & the thing attained, between the idea in the writer’s mind, & the ειδωλον[3] cast off in his work. All the effort, .. the quickening of the breath & beating of the heart in pursuit, which is ruffling & injurious to the general effect of a composition; all which you call ‘insistency,’ & which many wd call superfluity, & which is superfluous in a sense, .. you can pardon, because you understand. The great chasm between the thing I say, & the thing I would say, wd be quite dispiriting to me, in spite even of such kindnesses as yours, if the desire did not master the despondency. “Oh for a horse with wings!”.[4] It is wrong of me to write so of myself—only you put your finger on the root of a fault, which has, to my fancy, been a little misapprehended. I do not say everything I think (as has been said of me by master-critics) but I take every means to say what I think, which is different! or I fancy so!

In one thing however you are wrong– Why shd you deny the full measure of my delight & benefit from your writings? I could tell you why you should not– You have in your vision two worlds—or to use the language of the schools of the day, you are both subjective & objective in the habits of your mind– You can deal both with abstract thought, & with human passion in the most passionate sense. Thus, you have an immense grasp in Art; & no one at all accustomed to consider the usual forms of it, could help regarding with reverence & gladness the gradual expansion of your powers. Then you are ‘masculine’ to the height—and I, as a woman, have studied some of your gestures of language & intonation wistfully, as a thing beyond me far! & the more admirable for being beyond.

Of your new work I hear with delight–[5] How good of you to tell me. And it is not dramatic in the strict sense, I am to understand .. (am I right in understanding so?) and you speak in your own person ‘to the winds’?. no—but to the thousand living sympathies which will awake to hear you. A great dramatic power may develop itself otherwise than in the formal drama,—and I have been guilty of wishing, before this hour, (for reasons which I will not thrust upon you after all my tedious writing) that you wd give the public a poem unassociated directly or indirectly with the stage, for a trial on the popular heart. I reverence the drama, but—

But I break in on myself out of consideration for you. I might have done it you will think, before. I vex your ‘serene sleep of the virtuous’[6] like a nightmare. Do not say .. “no”—I am sure I do!– As to the vain parlance of the world, I did not talk of the “honor of your acquaintance” without a true sense of honor, indeed,—but I shall willingly exchange it all; (—& now, if you please, at this moment, for fear of worldly mutabilities ..) for the ‘delight of your friendship.’

Believe me, therefore,

dear Mr Browning

faithfully yours & gratefully

Elizabeth B Barrett.

For Mr Kenyon’s kindnesses as I see it .. no ‘theory’ will account. I class it with mesmerism for that reason.

Address: Robert Browning Esq. / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.

Postmark: PD 8NT JA15 1845 A.

Docket, in RB’s hand: 2.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 8–10.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. For earlier references to this subject, see letters 705 and 1739.

2. See letters 1807 and 1864.

3. “Image.”

4. Cymbeline, III, 2, 48.

5. See letter 1814.

6. See letter 1814, note 4.


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