1870. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 132–135.
50 Wimpole Street
March 20. 1845
Whenever I delay to write to you dear Mr Browning, it is not, be sure, that I take my “own good time” but submit to my own bad time. It was kind of you to wish to know how I was, & not unkind of me to suspend my answer to your question—for indeed I have not been very well nor have had much heart for saying so. This implacable weather!—this east wind that seems to blow through the sun & moon! who can be well in such a wind?– Yet for me, I should not grumble. There has been nothing very bad the matter with me, as there used to be—I only grow weaker than usual, & learn my lesson of being mortal, in a corner—and then all this must end! April is coming. There will be both a May & a June if we live to see such things .. & perhaps, after all, we may. And as to seeing you besides, I observe that you distrust me—& that perhaps you penetrate my morbidity & guess how when the moment comes to see a living human face to which I am not accustomed, I shrink & grow pale in the spirit. Do you?– You are learned in human nature, & you know the consequences of leading such a secluded life as mine .. notwithstanding all my fine philosophy about social duties & the like—well—if you have such knowledge or if you have it not, I cannot say—but I do say that I will indeed see you when the warm weather has revived me a little, & put the earth “to rights” again so as to make pleasures of the sort possible. For if you think that I shall not like to see you—you are wrong, for all your learning. But I shall be afraid of you at first—though I am not, in writing thus. You are Paracelsus—and I am a recluse—with nerves that have been all broken on the rack, & now hang loosely, .. quivering at a step & breath.
And what you say of society draws me on to many comparative thoughts of your life & mine. You seem to have drunken of the cup of life full, with the sun shining on it. I have lived only inwardly,—or with sorrow, for a strong emotion. Before this seclusion of my illness, I was secluded still—& there are few of the youngest women in the world who have not seen more, heard more, known more, of society, than I, who am scarcely to be called young now. I grew up in the country .. had no social opportunities, .. had my heart in books & poetry, .. & my experience, in reveries. My sympathies drooped towards the ground like an untrained honeysuckle—& but for one .. in my own house .. but of this I cannot speak. It was a lonely life—growing green like the grass around it. Books & dreams were what I lived in—& domestic love only seemed to buzz gently around, like the bees about the grass. And so time passed, & passed—and afterwards, when my illness came & I seemed to stand at the edge of the world with all done, & no prospect (as appeared at one time) of ever passing the threshold of one room again,—why then, I turned to thinking with some bitterness (after the greatest sorrow of my life had given me room & time to breathe) that I had stood blind in this temple I was about to leave, .. that I had seen no Human nature … that my brothers & sisters of the earth were names to me, .. that I had beheld no great mountain or river—nothing in fact. I was as a man dying who had not read Shakespeare .. & it was too late!—do you understand? And do you also know what a disadvantage this ignorance is to my art. Why if I live on & yet do not escape from this seclusion, do you not perceive that I labour under signal disadvantages .. that I am, in a manner, as a blind poet?– Certainly, there is a compensation to a degree. I have had much of the inner life—& from the habit of selfconsciousness & selfanalysis, I make great guesses at Human Nature in the main. But how willingly I would as a poet exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous helpless knowledge of books, for some experience of life & man, for some …
But all grumbling is a vile thing. We should all thank God for our measures of life, & think them enough for each of us. I write so, that you may not mistake what I wrote before in relation to society, although you do not see from my point of view,—& that you may understand what I mean fully when I say, that I have lived all my chief joys, & indeed nearly all emotions that go warmly by that name & relate to myself personally, in poetry & in poetry alone. Like to write? Of course, of course, I do. I seem to live while I write—it is life, for me. Why what is to live? Not to eat & drink & breathe, .. but to feel the life in you down all the fibres of being, passionately & joyfully. And thus, one lives in composition surely .. not always .. but when the wheel goes round & the procession is uninterrupted. Is it not so with you? oh—it must be so. For the rest, there will be necessarily a reaction, .. &, in my own particular case, whenever I see a poem of mine in print, or even smoothly transcribed, the reaction is most painful. The pleasure, .. the sense of power, .. without which I could not write a line, is gone in a moment, & nothing remains but disappointment & humiliation. I never wrote a poem which you could not persuade me to tear to pieces if you took me at the right moment! I have a seasonable humility, I do assure you.
How delightful to talk about one’self—but as you [‘]‘tempted me & I did eat,” I entreat your long suffering of my sin—& Ah—if you would but sin back so in turn!– You & I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony .. as in the ‘si .. no .. si .. no’ of an Italian duet. I want to see more of men—& you have seen too much, you say. I am in ignorance, & you, in satiety. “You dont even care about reading now,” Is it possible? And I am as ‘fresh’ about reading, as ever I was—as long as I keep out of the shadow of the dictionaries & of theological controversies, & the like. Shall I whisper it to you under the memory of the last rose of last summer … I am very fond of romances .. yes!—and I read them not only as some wise people are known to do, for the sake of the eloquence here & the sentiment there, & the graphic intermixtures here & there, .. but for the story!—just as little children would, sitting on their Papa’s knee. My childish love of a story never wore out with my love of plumbcake—& now there is not a hole in it. I make it a rule, for the most part, to read all the romances that other people are kind enough to write—& woe to the miserable wight who tells me how the third volume endeth. Have you in you any surviving innocence of this sort?—or do you call it idiocy?. If you do, I will forgive you—only smiling to myself, I give you notice, with a smile of superior .. pleasure! Mr Chorley made me quite laugh the other day by recommending Mary Howitt’s ‘Improvisatore,’ with a sort of deprecating reference to the descriptions in the book—just as if I never read a novel, .. I!– I wrote a confession back to him which made him shake his head perhaps—& now I confess to you, unprovoked. I am one who could have forgotten the plague, listening to Boccaccio’s stories,—& I am not ashamed of it. I do not even [‘]‘see the better part,” I am so silly.
Ah—you tempt me with a grand vision of Prometheus!—I, who have just escaped with my life, after treading Milton’s ground—you would send me to Æschylus’es. No—I do not dare. And besides .. I am inclined to think that we want new forms .. as well as thoughts– The old gods are dethroned. Why should we go back to the antique moulds .. classical moulds, as they are so improperly called. If it is a necessity of Art to do so, why then those critics are right who hold that Art is exhausted & the world too worn out for poetry. I do not, for my part, believe this: & I believe the so called necessity of Art, to be the mere feebleness of the artist– Let us all aspire rather to Life—& let the dead bury their dead. If we have but courage to face these conventions, to touch this low ground, we shall take strength from it instead of losing it; & of that, I am intimately persuaded. For there is poetry everywhere .. the “treasure” (see the old fable) lies all over the field. And then Christianity is a worthy myth, & poetically acceptable.
I had much to say to you .. or at least something .. of the ‘blind hopes’ &c, .. but am ashamed to take a step into a new sheet. If you mean “to travel,” why I shall have to miss you—do you really mean it? How is the play going on? & the poem? May God bless you!–
Ever & truly yours
Are you aware that in a late American publication comprising the poets of England, you are included, with a critical essay?—or biography, or personal notice of some sort—?
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmarks: 2AN2 MR21 1845 A; 4Eg4 MR21 1845.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 7.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 40–44.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. i.e., Bro’s death.
2. Genesis 3:13.
3. See letter 1861 in which EBB makes a similar comment to Chorley in response to Chorley’s recommendation of Mary Howitt’s Improvisatore.
4. Cf. I Henry IV, V, 4, 119–120.
5. i.e., “A Drama of Exile.” See also letter 1862 for RB’s suggestion that she “translate the Prometheus.”
6. Matthew 8:22.
7. Perhaps Æsop’s fable about the farmer and his sons.
8. The Poets and Poetry of England, in the Nineteenth Century by Rufus W. Griswold (Philadelphia, 1845) in which RB was noticed (pp. 464–465), as was EBB (pp. 422–437).