1829. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 50–54.
50 Wimpole Street.
Feb 3. 1845.
Why how could I hate to write to you; dear Mr Browning? Could you believe in such a thing? If nobody likes writing to everybody (except such professional letter writers as you & I are not—) yet everybody likes writing to somebody—& it wd be strange & contradictory if I were not always delighted both to hear from you & to write to you .. this talking upon paper being as good a social pleasure as another, when our means are somewhat straightened. As for me, I have done most of my talking by the post of late years—as people shut up in dungeons, take up with scrawling mottos on the walls. Not that I write to many in the way of regular correspondence, as our friend Mr Horne predicates of me in his romances (—which is mere romancing!—) but that there are a few who will write & be written to by me, without a sense of injury. Dear Miss Mitford for instance—you do not know her, I think, personally, although she was the first to tell me (when I was very ill & insensible to all the glories of the world except poetry) of the grand scene in Pippa Passes,—she has filled a large drawer in this room with delightful letters, heart-warm & soul-warm, .. driftings of nature (if sunshine cd drift like snow)—& which if they shd ever fall the way of all writing .. into print, wd assume the folio shape, as a matter of course, & take rank on the lowest shelf of libraries, with Benedictine editions of the Fathers, κ.τ.λ. I write this to you to show how I can have pleasure in letters, & never think them too long, nor too frequent, nor too illegible from being written in little “pet hands.” I can read any m∙s. except the writing on the pyramids. And if you will only promise to treat me ‘en bon camarade,’ without reference to the conventionalities of ‘ladies & gentlemen,’ .. taking no thought for your sentences, (nor for mine)—nor for your blots, (nor for mine) nor for your blunt speaking (nor for mine), <nor for your badd speling, (nor for mine)—> and if you agree to send me a blotted thought whenever you are in the mind for it, & with as little ceremony & less legibility than you wd think it necessary to employ towards your printer .. why then, I am ready to sign & seal the contract, & to rejoice in being ‘articled’ as your correspondent. Only dont let us have any constraint, any ceremony! Dont be civil to me when you feel rude,—nor loquacious, when you incline to silence,—nor yielding in the manners, when you are perverse in the mind. See how out of the world I am! Suffer me to profit by it in almost the only profitable circumstance, .. & let us rest from the bowing & the curtseying, you & I, on each side. You will find me an honest man on the whole, if rather hasty & prejudging .. which is a different thing from prejudice at the worst. And we have great sympathies in common, & I am inclined to look up to you in many things, & to learn as much of everything as you will teach me. On the other hand you must prepare yourself to forbear & to forgive—will you? While I throw off the ceremony, I hold the faster to the kindness.
Is it true, as you say, that I “know so ‘little[’]” of you? And is it true as others say, that the productions of an artist do not partake of his real nature, .. that in the minor sense, man is not made in the image of God?. It is not true, to my mind—& therefore it is not true that I know little of you, except in as far as it is true (which I believe) that your greatest works are to come. Need I assure you that I shall always hear with the deepest interest every word you will say to me of what you are doing or about to do? I hear of the ‘old room’ & the ‘bells[’] lying about, with an interest .. which you may guess at, perhaps. And when you tell me besides, of my poems being there; & of your caring for them so much beyond the tide-mark of my hopes, .. the pleasure rounds itself into a charm & prevents its own expression. Overjoyed I am with this cordial sympathy—but it is better, I feel, to try to justify it by future work, than to thank you for it now. I think,—if I may dare to name myself with you in the poetic relation,—that we both have high views of the art we follow, & stedfast purpose in the pursuit of it—& that we should not, either of us, be likely to be thrown from the course, by the casting of any Atalanta-ball of speedy popularity. But I do not know, I cannot guess, .. whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism & cold neglect, .. such as original writers like yourself, are too often exposed to—or whether the love of Art is enough for you, & the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life. Not that praise must not always, of necessity, be delightful to the artist,—but that it may be redundant to his content. Do you think so? or not? It appears to me that poets who, like Keats, are highly susceptible to criticism, must be jealous, in their own persons, of the future honour of their works. Because if a work is worthy, honour must follow it—though the worker should not live to see that following or over-taking. Now, is it not enough that the work be honoured—enough I mean, for the worker?– And is it not enough to keep down a poet[’]s ordinary wearing anxieties, to think, .. that if his work be worthy it will have honour, &, if not, that ‘Sparta must have nobler sons than he’?– I am writing nothing applicable, I see, to anything in question—but when one falls into a favorite train of thought, one indulges oneself in thinking on. I began by thinking & wondering what sort of artistic constitution you had—being determined, as you may observe (with a sarcastic smile at the impertinence!), to set about knowing as much as possible of you immediately. Then you spoke of your ‘gentle audience’—(you began!) & I who know that you have not one but many enthusiastic admirers, the ‘fit & few’ in the intense meaning, yet not the diffused fame which will come to you presently,—wrote on, down the margin of the subject, till I parted from it altogether. But, after all, we are on the proper matter of sympathy. And after all, & after all that has been said & mused upon the ‘natural ills,’ the anxiety, & wearing out experienced by the true artist, .. is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil? Is it not great good, & great joy? For my part, I wonder sometimes .. I surprise myself wondering, .. how without such an object & purpose of life, people find it worth while to live at all. And, for happiness .. why my only idea of happiness, as far as my personal enjoyment is concerned, (but I have been straightened in some respects & in comparison with the majority of livers!) lies deep in poetry & its associations. And then, the escape from pangs of heart & bodily weakness, .. when you throw off yourself .. what you feel to be yourself, .. into another atmosphere & into other relations, where your life may spread its wings out new, & gather on every separate plume, a brightness from the sun of the sun!– Is it possible that imaginative writers shd be so fond of depreciating & lamenting over their own destiny? Possible, certainly—but reasonable, not at all—& grateful, less than anything!
My faults, my faults—shall I help you? Ah—you see them too well, I fear. And do you know that I also, have something of your feeling about ‘being about to begin’——or I should dare to praise you for having it. But in you, it is different—it is, in you, a virtue. When Prometheus had recounted a long list of sorrows to be endured by Io, & declared at last that he was μηδεπω εν προοιμιοις, poor Io burst out crying. And when the author of ‘Paracelsus’ & the ‘Bells & Pomegranates’ says that he is only ‘going to begin,’ we may well (to take ‘the opposite idea’ as you write—) rejoice & clap our hands. Yet I believe that, whatever you may have done, .. you will do what is greater. It is my faith for you.
And how I shd like to know what poets have been your sponsors, ‘to promise & vow’ for you,—& whether you have held true to early tastes, or leapt violently from them—& what books you read, & what hours you write in. How curious I cd prove myself!– <if it is’nt proved already.>
But this is too much indeed—past all bearing, I suspect. Well—but if I ever write to you again, .. I mean, if you wish it,—it may be in the other extreme of shortness. So do not take me for a born heroine of Richardson, or think that I sin always to this length! else,—you might indeed repeat your quotation from Juliet .. which I guessed at once—& of course—
“I have no joy in this contract today!
It is too unadvised, too rash & sudden.”
Ever faithfully yours
Elizabeth B Barrett.
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmarks: 8Mg8 FE4 1845 A; 10FN10 FE4 1845 A.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 3.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 12–16.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. EBB refers to Horne’s comments about her that “she ‘lives’ in constant correspondence with many of the most eminent persons of the time” in A New Spirit (II, 132 and see our volume 8, p. 342).
2. See letter 1819, note 5.
3. Καί τά λοιπά (“and the rest; et cetera”).
4. “As a good friend; companion.”
5. The bracketed comment was squeezed in as an afterthought.
6. Cf. Genesis 1:26.
7. Presumably a reference to the Greek legend of the maiden, Atalanta, who refused to marry unless her suitor could defeat her in a footrace; Milanion (or Hippomenes) accomplished this by placing irresistible golden apples in Atalanta’s way which she stopped to pick up during the race.
8. Plutarch, “Sayings of Spartans,” Moralia, 219e, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt.
9. “Not yet in the prelude” (Prometheus Bound, line 741, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth; also cf. EBB’s revised translation in Poems (1850), lines 865–866).
10. Cf. the response to the third question in the form of catechism prior to confirmation in The Book of Common Prayer.
11. EBB has circled this interpolation as an afterthought.
12. i.e., Clarissa or Pamela.
13. Cf. Romeo and Juliet, II, 2, 117–118.