1837.  RB to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 69–72.


Tuesday. [Postmark: 11 February 1845]

Dear Miss Barrett,

People would hardly ever tell falsehoods about a matter, if they had been let tell truth in the beginning—for it is hard to prophane one’s very self, and nobody who has—for instance—used certain words and ways to a mother or a father could .. even if by the devil’s help he would .. reproduce or mimic them with any effect to anybody else that was to be won over; and so, if “I love you” were always outspoken when it might be, there would, I suppose, be no fear of its desecration at any after time: but lo! only last night, I had to write, on the part of Mr Carlyle, to a certain ungainly foolish gentleman who keeps back from him, with all the fussy impotence of stupidity (not bad feeling, alas; for that we could deal with) a certain m∙s letter of Cromwell’s which completes the Collection now going to press[1]—and this long-ears had to be “dear Sir’d” and “obedient servanted” till I said (to use a mild word) “Commend me to the sincerities of this kind of thing”!–[2] When I spoke of you knowing little of me, one of the senses in which I meant so was this .. that I would not well vowel-point my common-place letters and syllables with a masoretic other sound and sense,[3] make my “dear” something intenser than “dears” in ordinary, and “yours ever” a thought more significant than the run of its like; and all this came of your talking of “tiring me,” “being too curious,” &c. &c which I should never have heard of had the plain truth looked out of my letter with its unmistakeable eyes: now, what you say of the “bowing,” and convention that is to be, and tant de façons[4] that are not to be, helps me once and for ever—for have I not a right to say simply that, for reasons I know,—for other reasons I don’t exactly know, but might if I chose to think a little, and for still other reasons, which, most likely, all the choosing and thinking in the world would not make me know, I had rather hear from you than see anybody else .. never you care, dear noble Carlyle, nor you, my own friend Alfred over the sea,[5] nor a troop of true lovers! Are not these fates written? There! Don’t you answer this, please, but, mind it is on record, and now then, with a lighter conscience I shall begin replying to your questions. First then,—what I have printed gives no knowledge of me—it evidences abilities of various kinds, if you will,—and a dramatic sympathy with certain modifications of passion .. that I think: but I never have begun, even, what I hope I was born to begin and end,—“R.B. a poem.” And, next, if I speak (and, God knows, feel) as if what you have read were sadly imperfect demonstrations of even mere ability, it is from no absurd vanity, tho’ it might seem so—these scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power,—which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea[6]—wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick—for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard—(this head of mine knows better)—but the work has been inside, and not when, at stated times I held up my light to you—and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you, (and nobody else) even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower!– Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half-done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me. Still, I hope sometimes, tho’ phrenologists will have it that I cannot, and am doing better with this darling “Luria”—so safe in my head and a tiny slip of paper I cover with my thumb!

Then you inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism,” and I shall be glad to tell you exactly—because I have, more than once, taken a course you might else not understand. I shall live always,—that is for me. I am living here this 1845, that is for London. I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and, with the belief, that, after every drawback & shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered—that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me. But of course I must, if for merely scientific purposes, know all about this 1845, its ways and doings, and something I do know,—as that for a dozen cabbages, if I pleased to grow them in the garden here, I might demand, say, a dozen pence at Covent Garden Market,—and that for a dozen scenes, of the average goodness, I may challenge as many plaudits at the theatre close by,—and a dozen pages of verse, brought to the Rialto where verse-merchants most do congregate,[7] ought to bring me a fair proportion of the Reviewers’ gold-currency, seeing the other traders pouch their winnings, as I do see—: well, when they won’t pay me for my cabbages, nor praise me for my poems, I may, if I please, say “more’s the shame,”[8] and bid both parties “decamp to the crows,”[9] in Greek phrase, and yet go very lighthearted back to a garden-full of rose-trees, and a soul-full of comforts; if they had bought my greens I should have been able to buy the last number of “Punch,” and go thro’ the toll-gate of Waterloo bridge, and give the blind clarionet-player a trifle, and all without changing my gold—if they had taken to my books, my father and mother would have been proud of this and the other “favorable critique,” and .. at least so folks hold .. I should have to pay Mr Moxon less by a few pounds—whereas .. but you see! Indeed, I force myself to say ever and anon, in the interest of the market-gardeners regular, and Keats’s proper,—“it’s nothing to you,—critics & hucksters, all of you, if I have this garden & this conscience,—I might go die at Rome, or take to gin and the newspaper, for what you would care”! So I don’t quite lay open my resources to everybody. But it does so happen, that I have met with much more than I could have expected in this matter of kindly and prompt recognition. I never wanted a real set of good hearty praisers—and no bad reviewers .. I am quite content with my share. No—what I laughed at in my “gentle audience” is a sad trick the real admirers have of admiring at the wrong place—enough to make an apostle swear! That does make me savage,—never the other kind of people: why, think now: take your own “Drama of Exile” and let me send it to the first twenty men & women that shall knock at your door to day and after—of whom the first five are—the Postman, the seller of cheap sealing-wax, Mr Hawkins Junr, the Butcher for orders, and the Tax-gatherer,—will you let me, by Cornelius Agrippa’s assistance,[10] force these five and their fellows to read, and report on, this drama—and, when I have put these faithful reports into fair English, do you believe they would be better than, if as good, as, the general run of Periodical criticisms? Not they, I will venture to affirm. Well then,—once again, I get these people together and give them your book, and persuade them, moreover, that by praising it, the Postman will be helping its author to divide Long Acre into two beats, one of which she will take with half the salary and all the red collar,—that the sealing wax-vendor will see red wafers brought into vogue, and so on with the rest—and won’t you just wish for your Spectators and Observers and Newcastle-upon-Tyne-Hebdomadal-Mercuries back again! You see the inference—I do sincerely esteem it a perfectly providential and miraculous thing that they are so well-behaved in ordinary, these critics; and for Keats and Tennyson to “go softly all their days”[11] for a gruff word or two is quite inexplicable to me, and always has been. Tennyson reads the “Quarterly” and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world—out goes this, in goes that, all is changed, and ranged[12] .. Oh, me!–

Out comes the sun, in comes the “Times” and Eleven strikes (it does) already, and I have to go to Town, and I have no alternative but that this story of the Critic and Poet, “the Bear and fiddle,” should “begin but break off in the middle”[13]—yet I do not—nor will you henceforth, I know, say, “I vex you, I am sure, by this lengthy writing”—mind that spring is coming, for all this snow; and know me for yours ever faithfully,

R Browning.

I don’t dare—yet I will—ask can you read this? Because, I could write a little better, but not so fast. Do you keep writing just as you do now!

Address, on cover sheet: Miss Barrett / 50 Wimpole Street.

Postmark: 5EV5 FE11 1845 B.

Docket, in EBB’s hand: IV.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 16–20.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. See letter 1834.

2. In response to Carlyle’s request in letter 1834 (see also nos. 1839 and 1840).

3. RB is referring to the practice of the Hebrew scholars, known as Masoretes, of adding vowel points to the traditionally consonantal Hebrew text, which, in some cases, significantly affected the sense of the passage.

4. “So many affectations.”

5. RB refers to his close friend, Alfred Domett, who had left for New Zealand early in 1842.

6. Cf. Paracelsus, V, 386.

7. Cf. The Merchant of Venice, I, 3, 49.

8. Cf. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III, 1, 145.

9. i.e., “go to the crows” (cf. Aristophanes, Clouds, 123, trans. Benjamin Bickley Rogers).

10. De Occulta Philosophia by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), provided the preface to Pauline. See Reconstruction, A26–28, for works by Agrippa owned by RB.

11. Cf. Isaiah 38:15.

12. Perhaps an allusion to The Taming of the Shrew, III, 1, 91–92. A review of Tennyson’s Poems (1842) appeared in The Quarterly Review for September 1842 (vol. 70, pp. 385–416); it was written by John Sterling (see letter 984).

13. Cf. closing lines of “The Argument” in Butler’s Hudibras (1662), Part I, i.


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