Correspondence

1836.  EBB to Mary Russell Mitford

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 65–68.

[London]

February 11. 1845

Ever dearest friend

Do you know I half lamented on Sunday that I had written for your counsel on saturday in relation to the Bazaar.[1] And here is my reason!– Every feeling within me was pulling one way (in favour of the application) & every friend without me, the other way, & against the application—and as I saw there was nothing for me but to yield, why there was a sort of comfort in having no voice with me & in the necessity being as large & strong as possible. Papa was against it, which, if he stood his ground, was enough of course to decide the question. And then, I enclose to you the letter dearest Mr Kenyon wrote to me on the same side. And then all my brothers .. whom I had a regular quarrel with, by the bye, because they took up the argument on wrong grounds altogether, & abused the League & laughed at the ladies’ committee, & at the idea of my verses doing good at all,––a woman’s verses!—oh, think of the impertinence of it,—& how I was like a very Pythia for rage,[2] .. the divine inspiration apart!– And then, to close the scene & clench the whole series of arguments, Mr Kenyon came, & told me that he had seen Mr Chorley, & that Mr Chorley declared it wd ruin me for ever if I attempted such a thing, .. that my poetical reputation was at a crisis, .. & that from the moment I trusted it into the air of that region, it wd fall flat, .. that nobody wd read or buy me any more, as a matter of principle, .. nobody! & that my utility, from that hour, wd be circumscribed, shackled, undone,—that the act wd be fatal to me as a writer! Well!—and so, I half regretted asking you for your counsel—& seeing that it was necessary to execute myself, I wished it done with as sharp an axe as possible, .. & as quickly. Your thoughts .. I knew them! They were my own. Still, your letter made itself welcome,—& after all, it could scarcely make me feel surer than I was before, & am at this moment, that in refusing I have not acted as generously as I ought to have done, nor from as high motives. I am not satisfied with myself—not at all. What was the folly called ‘my poetical reputation,’ in comparison with the duty to which I was invited? I too, who have always professed & desired to sacrifice nothing to poetical reputation .. not even my own views of art & composition! Indeed I am displeased with myself. And the trouble & labour I had in writing my answer to the Committee, would have proved to me my own self-displeasure, if I had not previously been aware of it. And yet, what could I do? How could I act contrary to the advice of all around me, & especially against my own father’s? I felt it was not possible. Also I might perhaps have circumscribed my future means of utility, .. if ever so little at present. Only again .. that argument, which is the least ignoble of all at first sight, .. is nothing after all but the doing of evil that good may come,[3] or that another evil may not come ..: it is pitiful expediency—to say the best of the best!

I enclose you dear Mr Kenyon’s letter. What he says about his fossil-republican-cousin, relates to a saying of mine that I was in politics of no extant party, but a sort of fossil-republican. He comforts me by the suggestion that I might have written some fiery stanzas tending to rick-burning[4]—but I should’nt, I think. And I have written my ‘ungracious’ refusal—yes, most ungracious—! in which, however, I have tried to assure them that in essential points, & where the principle is concerned & not the form, I would not falsify the trust they reposed in me. Is’nt it pitiful of me,—now, is’nt it? ought’nt I to be ashamed of myself? I am, my dearest friend, I am!– My only consolation is, a resolve to write something with a League-object, though out of the League-livery—that, I will do. I am chafing against a bit, like my Prometheus.[5]

And by the way, what do you think I have chosen for an employment lately?– You know my opinion of that miserable production called my translation of Æschylus’s Prometheus, & which shd be rather called the blot on my escutcheon. Well! To prove my truth of selfreproach & efface the blot, .. I have been translating the whole over again.[6] I began with the first Greek line & ended with the last, not referring at all to my former misdoing, & have completed a version, which however faulty in many respects, is not faulty in the way of the preceding one, .. in being as cold as Caucasus on the snow-peak,[7] & as flat as Salisbury plain. It has more poetry, at least, & is nearer Æschylus: & I have had great pleasure in doing it, & in feeling that I have done something to retrieve my own disgrace as a poet by my own hand. Perhaps I may print it in a magazine——but I do not know– I have not made up my mind. I did it for conscience’ sake, more than from any other motive. Now I may sleep at nights, & Æschylus’s ghost not draw the curtains … “all in his winding sheet.”[8]

To think of my writing on, writing on, all this, .. & not a word of your coming. Ah!—but I moan & grumble a little at the incompleted pleasure. Dearest friend!– If you could instruct with a good deal of supererogatory lore your gardener this week, there might be some [left] over (might’nt there?) for next week. Think .. think .. at any rate. No—I shall not teaze you—only, think! For Mr Chorley, .. even if you did not command this house when you are in it, .. which you are at liberty to do, .. the door of it would yet be open to him as a respected visitor. But, you know, you speak of it out of form, which is really, betwixt you & me, very naughty of you. Otherwise too, you speak wildly & quite beside the question. You exaggerate everything about me, in what the Puseyites call a ‘non-natural sense’[9]—but there is no use at all in arguing the matter—& my modesty sits down exhausted.

And pray why should’nt Eugene Sue have a “bearde” as well as Beelzebub in the old mystery plays? And why should’nt Balzac have a beard? And a beard too for Frederic Soulié & the rest? Charles de Bernard & George Sand cant be bearded I suppose, the more’s the pity,[10].. except by the beards being tied on like their pantaloons, .. which is not impossible on second thoughts. But dont you know, my dearest friend, that the full bloom of the beard is as common as boots in Paris streets,—& that from the king’s sons to Paul who isn’t the apostle,[11] everybody is bearded like a pard—?[12] And why not, pray? I like it. I admire it. I like it both on picturesque grounds,—& on .. on .. (what shall I say?) on humanitarian or anthropological grounds. For Nature having produced a woman with a smooth chin & a man with a bearded chin, it is surely, primâ facie, absurd, to make both faces equally smooth—& to scrape & scarify one chin to the level of the other chin. Shaving is abominably unnatural—beards are the most natural things in the world. Certainly I agree with you that where a fashion in dress & bearing is universal, the individual who resists it is foolish & affected in the act. That I agree in altogether. But where as in Paris, the practise of beard-wearing is common, I applaud, & wish Good speed to the beards. I shd like very much to see a little pointed well-smoothed & perfumed beard, a Vandyke beard, on the face of any of my male friends .. always provided that there were plenty of rough ugly beards out in the streets to justify the grace. I like it in itself—but affectation & the singularities which express it, I do not like.

Tell me how Jane is– Let me hear—do—of your plans.

And do not fancy—no, do not!—that I under-rate Charles de Bernard. I think I see everything which you see in him .. or in her. A great artist, I take him or her to be,—& not merely a comic artist .. witness ‘Gerfaut.’[13] When I name Soulié, it is not at all for the sake of putting him in the first class,—but that I certainly seem to see in him more faculty than you are willing to acknowledge. Disagreeable & painful he is to the extreme degree—but then, is he alone in it? is not Eugene Sue with him in it? nay, where is Balzac himself? Now, you know, if you had not a pleasure just as I have, in abstract faculty & power, you would not bear one of these writers, .. & scarcely one of their works. Do you understand what I mean? If not, I have no time to explain it——the post goes. I have written myself into better spirits & humour than I began with .. but your influence is always for good, through the snow even.

Your attached

EBB.

Oh—the oysters! There appears to be a difficulty about getting them, which accounts for the delay. It is strange at this time of year. They promise, however to allow themselves to be discovered anon by my Columbus.

Address: Miss Mitford / Three Mile Cross / near Reading.

Publication: EBB-MRM, III, 75–78.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. See letter 1833.

2. A reference to the priestess of Apollo at Delphi who obtained inspiration by inhaling the sulphureous vapors coming out of the ground.

3. Cf. Romans 3:8.

4. Burning hay and straw was a common method of protest among agricultural activists.

5. EBB refers to Prometheus being chained and tortured.

6. EBB wrote in her diary, 15 February 1832: “I have finished my translation. 1075 lines of Æschylus translated in a fortnight” (Diary, p. 216). That version was published by A.J. Valpy in 1833 as Prometheus Bound. In a letter dated 23 August 1846, EBB explained to RB that she had approached Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine about publishing the new translation, and they replied that “they would ‘like to see’ my Prometheus though apprehensive of its being unfit for the magazine.” EBB’s revised translation of Prometheus Bound was not published until her works were collected in Poems (1850).

7. Where Prometheus was chained to a rock as punishment for offending Jupiter.

8. Cf. Drayton, Idea, vi, l. 4.

9. A controversy had resulted from the publication of Tract XC in which Newman said that interpretation of the Thirty-Nine Articles could be based upon a “literal and grammatical sense”; however, William G. Ward (1812–82), one of the leaders with Newman in the Oxford Movement, said that a Catholic interpretation could only be based upon a “non-natural sense” (William George Ward and The Oxford Movement, 1889, Wilfrid Ward, p. 161).

10. Cf. I Henry IV, II, 4, 468. Despite Miss Mitford telling EBB that Charles de Bernard was a woman (see letter 1739), they continued to speculate about the possibility of de Bernard being a man; e.g., see letter 1885.

11. i.e., Paul de Kock (see letters 1736 and 1817); Louis Philippe had seven sons.

12. Cf. As You Like It, II, 7, 150.

13. Charles de Bernard’s novel was published in 1838 (see letter 1650).

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