1862.  RB to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 118–122.


Tuesday Morning. [11 March 1845][1]

Your letter made me so happy, dear Miss Barrett, that I have kept quiet this while: is it too great a shame if I begin to want more good news of you, and to say so?. Because there has been a bitter wind ever since. Will you grant me a great favour? Always when you write, tho’ about your own works, not Greek plays merely, put me in—always—a little official bulletin-line that shall say “I am better”—or “still better”—will you? That is done, then—and now, what do I wish to tell you first? The Poem you propose to make, for the times,—the fearless fresh living work, you describe,—is the only Poem to be undertaken now by you or anyone that is a Poet at all,—the only reality, only effective piece of service to be rendered God and man—it is what I have been all my life intending to do, and now shall be much, much nearer doing, since you will be along with me. And you can do it, I know—and am sure—so sure, that I could find in my heart to be jealous of your stopping in the way even to translate the Prometheus,—tho’ the accompanying monologue will make amends, too—Or shall I set you a task I meant for myself once upon a time?—which, Oh, how you would fulfil! Restore the Prometheus Πυρφορος[2] as Shelley did the Λυομευος[3]—when I say “restore” I know, or very much fear, that the πυρφορος was the same with the πυρκαευς[4] which, by a fragment, we sorrowfully ascertain to have been a Satyric Drama—but surely the capabilities of the subject are much greater than in this, we now wonder at; nay, they include all those of this last—for just see how magnificently the story unrolls itself. The Beginning of Jupiter’s Dynasty, the calm in Heaven after the storm, the ascending .. (stop, I will get the book and give the words)—οπως ταχιςα τον πατρἕωον εις θρονον καθ᾽εζετ᾽, ευθυς δαιμοσιν νεμει γερα αλλοισιν αλλα .. κ.τ.λ[5] all the while Prometheus being the first among the first in honor, as καιτοι θεοισι τοις νεοις τουτοις γερα τις αλλος, η ᾽γω, παντελως διωρισε?[6]—then the one black hand-cloudlet staining the joyous blue and gold everywhere, βροτων δε των ταλαιπωρων λογον ουκ εσχεν ουδενα,[7] and the design of Zeus to blot out the whole race, and plant a new one. And Prometheus with his grand solitary εγω δ᾽ετολμησα[8]—and his saving them .. as the first good .. from annihilation– Then comes the darkening brow of Zeus, and estrangement from the benign circle of grateful gods, and the dissuasion of old confederates, and all the Right that one may fancy in might, the strongest reasons to παυεσθαι τροπου φιλανθρωπου,[9] coming from the own mind of the Titan, if you will,—and all the while he shall be proceeding steadily in the alleviation of the sufferings of mortals whom, νηπιους οντας το πριν, εννους και φρενων επηβολους εθηκε,[10] while still, in proportion, shall the doom he is about to draw on himself manifest itself more and more distinctly, till at the last, he shall achieve the salvation of man, body—(by the gift of fire) and soul (by even those τυφλαι ελπιδες,[11] hopes of immortality) and so having rendered him utterly .. according to the mythos here .. independent of Jove—for observe, Prometheus in the play never talks of helping mortals more, of fearing for them more, of even benefiting them more by his sufferings—the rest is between Jove and himself .. he will reveal the master-secret to Jove when he shall have released him &c—there is no stipulation that the gifts to mortals shall be continued .. indeed, by the fact that it is Prometheus who hangs on Caucasus while “the ephemerals possess fire”,[12] one sees that somehow mysteriously they are past Jove’s harming now)—well, this wholly achieved, the price is as wholly accepted, and off into the darkness passes in calm triumphant grandeur the Titan—with Strength and Violence, and Vulcan’s silent and downcast eyes—and then the gold clouds and renewed flushings of felicity shut up the scene again, with Might in his old throne again,—yet with a new element of mistrust, and conscious shame, and fear, that writes significantly enough above all the glory & rejoicing that all is not as it was, nor will ever be. Such might be the framework of your Drama—just what cannot help striking one at first glance—and would not such a Drama go well before your translation? Do think of this and tell me—it nearly writes itself. (You see, I meant the μεγ᾽ ὠφελημα[13] to be a deep great truth; if there were no life beyond this, I think the hope in one, would be an incalculable blessing for this life—which is melancholy for one like Æschylus to feel, if he could only hope, because the argument as to the ulterior good of those hopes, is cut clean away, and what had he left?)

I do not find it take away from my feeling of the magnanimity of Prometheus that he should .. in truth .. complain (as he does from beginning to end) of what he finds himself suffering. He could have prevented all, and can stop it now .. of that he never thinks for a moment. That was the old Greek way—they never let an antagonistic passion neutralize the other which was to influence the man to his praise or blame. A Greek hero fears exceedingly and battles it out—cries out when he is wounded and fights on, does not say his love or hate makes him see no danger or feel no pain—Æschylus from first word to last, (ιδεσθε με, οι῾α πασχω[14]—to—εσορᾳς με, ὡς εκδικαπ ασχω[15]) insists on the unmitigated reality of the punishment which only the sun, and divine ether, and the godhead of his mother can comprehend—still, still—that is only what I suppose Æschylus to have done; in your poem you shall make Prometheus our way.

And now enough of Greek, which I am fast forgetting (for I never look at books I loved once—it was your mention of the translation that brought out the old fast fading outlines of the Poem in my brain—the Greek poem, that is)– You think .. for I must get to you .. that I “unconsciously exaggerate what you are to me”[16]—now, you don’t know what that is, nor can I very well tell you, because the language with which I talk to myself of these matters is spiritual Attic, and “loves contractions” as grammarians say,—but I read it myself, and well know what it means .. that’s why I told you I was self-conscious,—I meant that I never yet mistook my own feelings, one for another—there! Of what use is talking? Only, do you stay here with me in the “House”[17] these few short years. Do you think I shall see you in two months, three months? I may travel perhaps. So you have got to like society, and would enjoy it, you think? For me, I always hated it,—have put up with it these six or seven years past lest by foregoing it I should let some unknown good escape me, in the true time of it, and only discover my fault when too late,—and now, that I have done most of what is to be done, any lodge in a garden of cucumbers[18] for me! I don’t even care about reading now—the world, and pictures of it,—rather than writings about the world! but you must read books in order to get words and forms for “the public” if you write, and that you needs must do, if you fear God—I have no pleasure in writing myself—none, in the mere act,—tho’ all pleasure in the sense of fulfilling a duty—whence, if I have done my real best, judge how heartbreaking a matter must it be to be pronounced a poor creature by Critic This and acquaintance the other. But I think you like the operation of writing as I should like that of painting, or making music, do you not? After all there is a great delight in the heart of the thing,—and use and forethought have made me ready at all times to set to work—but—I don’t know why—my heart sinks whenever I open this desk, and rises when I shut it. Yet but for what I have written you would never have heard of me—and thro’ what you have written, not properly for it, I love and wish you well! Now, will you remember what I began my letter by saying—how you have promised to let me know if my well wishing takes effect, and if you still continue better? And do not even .. (since we are learned in magnanimity ..) don’t even tell me that or anything else, if it teases you,—but wait your own good time, and know me for .. if these words were but my own, and fresh-minted for this moment’s use! ..

Yours ever faithfully

R Browning.

Address: Miss Barrett / 50 Wimpole St

Postmark: PD 10FN MR12 1845 A.

Docket, in EBB’s hand: 8 [altered from “7”].

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 36–40.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Date provided by postmark.

2. “Fire-bearer.”

3. “Unbound.”

4. “Fire-kindler.”

5. “Soon as ever he had seated himself upon his father’s throne, he forthwith assigned to the deities their several privileges … etc” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 230–233, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth).

6. “And yet who but I definitely assigned their prerogatives unto these upstart gods?” (Cf. Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 439–440, trans. Smyth).

7. “But of wretched mortals he took no heed” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 233–234, trans. Smyth).

8. “None dared … save I” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 237, trans. Smyth).

9. “Forbear his championship of man” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 11, trans. Smyth).

10. “How that they were witless erst and I made them to have sense and be endowed with reason” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 233–234, trans. Smyth).

11. “Blind hopes” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 252, trans. Smyth).

12. Καὶ νυν φλογωπὸν πυρ ἔχουσ' ἐφήμεροι; (Cf. Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 255, trans. Smyth).

13. “Great boon” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 253, trans. Smyth).

14. “Behold what I, … endure” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 252, trans. Smyth).

15. “Thou seest the wrongs I suffer” (Æschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 1094, trans. Smyth).

16. See letter 1857.

17. Perhaps a reference to EBB’s poem “The House of Clouds” in Poems (1844).

18. Cf. Isaiah 1:8.


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