1843.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 78–82.

50 Wimpole Street

February 17. 1845.

Dear Mr Browning

To begin with the end (which is only characteristic of the perverse like myself), I assure you I read your handwriting as currently as I could read the clearest type from font. If I had practised the art of reading your letters all my life, I could’nt do it better. And then I approve of small m∙s. upon principle. Think of what an immense quantity of physical energy must go to the making of those immense sweeping handwritings achieved by some persons .. Mr Landor for instance, who writes as if he had the sky for a copybook & dotted his i[’]s in proportion. People who do such things shd wear gauntlets,—yes, and have none to wear,—or they would’nt waste their strength so. People who write .. by profession .. shall I say? .. never should do it .. or what will become of them when most of their strength retires into their head & heart, (as is the case with some of us & may be the case with all) & when they have to write a poem twelve times over, as Mr Kenyon says I should do if I were virtuous? Not that I do it– Does anybody do it, I wonder? Do you, ever? From what you tell me of the trimming of the light, I imagine not. And besides, one may be laborious as a writer, without copying twelve times over. I believe there are people who will tell you in a moment what three times six is, without ‘doing it’ on their fingers; and in the same way one may work one’s verses in one’s head quite as laboriously as on paper– I maintain it. I consider myself a very patient, laborious writer—though dear Mr Kenyon laughs me to scorn [1] when I say so. And just see how it could be otherwise. If I were netting a purse I might be thinking of something else & drop my stitches,—or even if I were writing verses to please a popular taste, I might be careless in it. But the pursuit of an Ideal acknowledged by the mind, will draw & concentrate the powers of the mind—and Art, you know, is a jealous god & demands the whole man .. or woman. I cannot conceive of a sincere artist who is also a careless one—though one may have a quicker hand than another, in general,—& though all are liable to vicissitudes in the degree of facility .. & to entanglements in the machinery, notwithstanding every degree of facility. You may write twenty lines one day—or even three like Euripides in three days [2] —and a hundred lines in one more day: & yet on the hundred, may have been expended as much good work, as on the twenty & the three. And also, as you say, the lamp is trimmed behind the wall—and the act of utterance is the evidence of forgone study still more than it is the occasion of study. The deep interest with which I read all that you had the kindness to write to me of yourself, you must trust me for, as I find it hard to express it. It is sympathy in one way, and interest every way!– And now, see! Although you proved to me with admirable logic that, for reasons which you know & reasons which you dont know, I could’nt possibly know anything about you, .. though that is all true .. & proven (which is better than true) I really did understand of you before I was told, exactly what you told me. Yes—I did indeed. I felt sure that as a poet you fronted the future—& that your chief works, in your own apprehension, were to come. Oh—I take no credit of sagacity for it,—as I did not long ago to my sisters & brothers, when I professed to have knowledge of all their friends whom I never saw in my life, by the image coming with the name; & threw them into shouts of laughter by giving out all the blue eyes & black eyes & hazel eyes & noses Roman & Gothic ticketted aright for the Mr Smiths & Miss Hawkinses, .. & hit the bull’s eye & the true features of the case, ten times out of twelve. But you are different. You are to be made out by the comparative anatomy system. You have thrown out fragments of os .. sublime .. indicative of soul-mammothism—and you live to develop your nature, .. if you live. That is easy & plain. You have taken a great range—from those high faint notes of the mystics which are beyond personality .. to dramatic impersonations, gruff with nature, “gr–r– you swine”: [3] & when these are thrown into harmony, as in a manner they are in ‘Pippa Passes’ (which I could find in my heart to covet the authorship of, more than any of your works,—) the combinations of effect must always be striking & noble— and you must feel yourself drawn on to such combinations more & more. But I do not, you say, know yourself .. you. I only know abilities & faculties. Well, then!—teach me yourself .. you. I will not insist on the knowledge—and, in fact, you have not written the R.B. poem yet—your rays fall obliquely rather than directly straight. I see you only in your moon. Do tell me all of yourself that you can & will .. before the R.B. poem comes out. And what is Luria? A poem and not a drama?—I mean, a poem not in the dramatic form? Well!—I have wondered at you sometimes, not for daring, but for bearing to trust your noble works into the great mill of the “rank, popular” [4] playhouse, to be ground to pieces between the teeth of vulgar actors & actresses. I, for one, would as soon have “my soul among lions.” [5] ‘There is a fascination in it’ says Miss Mitford—& I am sure there must be, to account for it. Publics in the mass are bad enough; but to distil the dregs of the public & baptise oneself in that acrid moisture, where can be the temptation. I could swear by Shakespeare, as was once sworn “by those dead at Marathon,” [6] that I do not see where. I love the drama too. I look to our old dramatists as to our Kings & princes in poetry. I love them through all the deeps of their abominations. But the theatre in those days, was a better medium between the people & the poet; and the press in those days was a less sufficient medium than now. Still the poet suffered by the theatre even then; & the reasons are very obvious.

How true—how true .. is all you say about critics. My convictions follow you in every word– And I delighted to read your views of the poet’s right aspect towards criticism—I read them with the most complete appreciation & sympathy. I have sometimes thought that it would be a curious & instructive process, as illustrative of the wisdom & apprehensiveness of critics, if anyone would collect the critical soliloquies of every age touching its own literature, (as far as such may be extant) and confer them with the literary product of the said ages. Professor Wilson has begun something of the kind apparently, in his initiatory paper of the last Blackwood number on critics, beginning with Dryden—but he seems to have no design in his notice—it is a mere critique on the critic. [7] And then, he shd have begun earlier than Dryden—earlier even than Sir Philip Sydney, who in the noble ‘Discourse on Poetry,’ [8] gives such singular evidence of being stone-critic-blind to the gods who moved around him. As far as I can remember, he saw even Shakespeare but indifferently. Oh—it was in his eyes, quite an unillumed age, that period of Elizabeth which we see full of suns! and few can see what is close to the eyes though they run their heads against it: the denial of contemporary genius is the rule rather than the exception. No one counts the eagles in the nest, till there is a rush of wings,—and lo! they are flown. And here we speak of understanding men, such as the Sidneys and the Drydens. Of the great body of critics you observe rightly, that they are better than might be expected of their badness—only the fact of their influence is no less undeniable than the reason why they should not be influential. The brazen kettles will be taken for oracles all the world over. But the influence is for today, for this hour—not for tomorrow & the day after—unless indeed as you say, the poet do himself perpetuate the influence by submitting to it. Do you know Tennyson? that is, with a face to face knowledge? I have great admiration for him. In execution, he is exquisite,—and, in music, a most subtle weigher out to the ear, of fine airs. That such a poet shd submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics, (I do not say that suggestions from without may not be accepted with discrimination sometimes, to the benefit of the acceptor) blindly & implicitly to the suggestions of his critics, .. is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion & undo his calculating machine by it. [9] Napoleon called poetry ‘science creuse [10] —which, although he was not scientific in poetry himself, is true enough. But anybody is qualified, according to everybody, for giving opinions upon poetry. It is not so in chymistry and mathematics. Nor is it so, I believe, in whist and the polka. But then these are more serious things. [11]

Yes—and it does delight me to hear of your ‘garden full of roses & soul full of comforts.’ You have the right to both—you have the key to both. You have written enough to live by, though only beginning to write, as you say of yourself. And this reminds me to remind you that when I talked of coveting most the authorship of your ‘Pippa,’ I did not mean to call it your finest work (you might reproach me for that) but just to express a personal feeling. Do you know what it is to covet your neighbour’s poetry?—not his fame, but his poetry?—I dare say not. You are too generous. And, in fact, beauty is beauty, and, whether it comes by our own hand or another’s, blessed be the coming of it!– I, besides, feel that. And yet .. and yet, I have been aware of a feeling within me which has spoken two or three times to the effect of a wish, that I had been visited with the vision of ‘Pippa,’ before you—and confiteor tibi [12]  .. I confess the baseness of it. The conception is to my mind, most exquisite & altogether original—and the contrast in the working out of the plan, singularly expressive of various faculty.

Is the poem under your thumb, emerging from it? and in what metre? May I ask such questions?

And does Mr Carlyle tell you that he has forbidden all ‘singing’ to this perverse & froward generation, [13] which should work & not sing? [14] And have you told Mr Carlyle that song is work, and also the condition of work?– I am a devout sitter at his feet—and it is an effort to me to think him wrong in anything—and once when he told me to write prose & not verse, I fancied that his opinion was I had mistaken my calling, .. a fancy which in infinite kindness & gentleness he stooped immediately to correct. I never shall forget the grace of that kindness—but then! For him to have thought ill of me, would not have been strange. I often think ill of myself, as God knows. But for Carlyle to think of putting away even for a season, the poetry of the world, was wonderful, and has left me ruffled in my thoughts ever since. I do not know him personally at all. But as his disciple I ventured (by an exceptional motive) to send him my poems, and I heard from him as a consequence. ‘Dear & noble’ he is indeed—and a poet unaware himself; all but the sense of music. You feel it so—do you not? and the ‘dear sir’ has let him have the ‘letter of Cromwell,’ I hope,—and satisfied ‘the obedient servant’? [15] The curious thing in this world is not the stupidity, but the upper-handism of the stupidity. The geese are in the Capitol, and the Romans in the farm-yard [16] —and it seems all quite natural that it should be so, both to geese & Romans!

But there are things you say, which seem to me supernatural, .. for reasons which I know & for reasons which I dont know. You will let me be grateful to you, .. will you not? You must, if you will or not. And also .. I would not wait for more leave .. if I could but see your desk .. as I do your death’s heads and the spider-webs appertaining—but the soul of Cornelius Agrippa fades from me. [17]

Ever faithfully yours

Elizabeth B Barrett.

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

Postmark: 10FN10 FE19 1845 A.

Docket, in RB’s hand: 4.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 20–25.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Psalm 22:7.

2. Euripides “was slow in composing, and laboured with difficulty, from which circumstance a foolish and malevolent poet once observed that he had written 100 verses in three days, while Euripides had written only three. ‘True,’ says Euripides, ‘but there is this difference between your poetry and mine; yours will expire in three days, but mine shall live for ages to come’” (Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary).

3. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” line 72.

4. Cf. Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, III, cxiii, 2.

5. Psalm 57:4.

6. Presumably a Greek oath, but we have been unable to identify the source of this quotation. Cf. EBB’s Casa Guidi Windows, I, 425.

7. A series of eight articles entitled: “North’s Specimens of the British Critics,” by John Wilson (who wrote under the pseudonym Christopher North), was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine between February and September 1845. “No. I. Dryden” appeared in the issue for February (pp. 133–158).

8. Doubtless EBB refers to The Defense of Poesie (1595) by Philip Sidney.

9. Charles Babbage (1791–1871), mathematician and inventor of an elaborate calculating machine.

10. “Empty, or fertile, science.”

11. This sentence is interpolated at the top of a page.

12. “I confess to thee” (the opening words of the liturgical General Confession; cf. Psalm 32:5).

13. Cf. Deuteronomy 32:20 and Matthew 17:17.

14. Writing to RB about Sordello and Pippa Passes in June 1841, Carlyle said “I for one should hail it as a good omen that your next work were written in prose!” (letter 822). RB shared this letter with EBB in September 1845. See letter 1851 in which RB mentions Carlyle’s enthusiasm for singing and songs.

15. See letter 1837.

16. The allusion is to the legendary sacred geese whose cackling sounded the alarm thus saving Rome from the Gauls in 390 B.C.

17. See letter 1837, note 10. The allusion to spider webs is to a sketch RB had made in a letter to Horne (no. 1283) which Horne had shared with EBB (see no. 1323).


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