1906.  RB to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 199–203.


Saturday Morning. [Postmark: 3 May 1845]

Now shall you see what you shall see—here shall be “sound speech not to be reproved,”[1]—for this morning you are to know that the soul of me has it all her own way, dear Miss Barrett, this green cool nine-in-the morning time for my chesnut-tree over there, and for me who only coaxed my goodnatured—(really)—body up, after its three-hours night-rest on condition it should lounge, or creep about, incognito and without consequences—and so it shall, all but my right-hand which is half-spirit and “cuts” its poor relations, and passes itself off for somebody (that is, some soul) and is doubly active & ready on such occasions– Now I shall tell you all about it, first what [that] last letter meant, and then more. You are to know, then, that for some reason, that looked like an instinct, I thought I ought not to send shaft on shaft, letter-plague on letter, with such an uninterrupted clanging .. that I ought to wait, say a week at least, having killed all your mules for you, before I shot down your dogs: but not being exactly Phoibos Apollon,[2] you are to know further that when I did think I might go modestly on, .. ωμοι,[3] let me get out of this slough of a simile, never mind with what dislocation of ancles![4] Plainly, from waiting and turning my eyes away (not from you, but from you in your special capacity of being written-to, not spoken-to)—when I turned again you had grown—formidable somehow—tho’ that’s not the word,—nor are you the person, either,—it was my fortune, my privilege of being your friend this one way, that it seemed a shame for me to make no better use of than by taking it up with talk about books and I don’t know what: write what I will, you would read for once, I think—well, then,—what I shall write shall be—something on this book, and the other book, and my own books, and Mary Howitt’s books,[5] and at the end of it—good bye, and I hope here is a quarter of an hour rationally spent. So the thought of what I should find in my heart to say, and the contrast with what I suppose I ought to say .. all these things are against me. But this is very foolish, all the same, I need not be told—and is part & parcel of an older—indeed primitive folly of mine, which I shall never wholly get rid of, of desiring to do nothing when I cannot do all,—seeing nothing, getting, enjoying nothing, where there is no seeing & getting & enjoying wholly—and in this case, moreover, you are you, and know something about me, if not much, and have read Bos on the art of supplying Ellipses,[6] and (after, particularly, I have confessed all this, why & how it has been) you will subaudire[7] when I pull out my Mediæval-Gothic-Architectural-Manuscript (so it was, I remember now) and instruct you about corbeils and ogives .. tho’, after all, it was none of Vivian’s doing, that,—all the uncle kind of man’s, which I never professed to be. Now you see how I came to say some nonsense (I very vaguely think what) about Dante[8]—some desperate splash I know I made for the beginning of my picture, as when a painter at his wits’ end and hunger’s beginning, says “Here shall the figure[’]s hand be”—and spots that down, meaning to reach it naturally from the other end of his canvass,—and leaving off tired, there you see the spectral disjoined thing, and nothing between it and rationality: I intended to shade down and soften off and put in and leave out, and, before I had done, bring Italian Poets round to their old place again in my heart, giving new praise if I took old,—anyhow Dante is out of it all, as who knows but I, with all of him in my head and heart? But they do fret one, those tantalizing creatures, of fine passionate class, with such capabilities, and such a facility of being made pure mind of. And the special instance that vexed me, was that a man of sands and dogroses and white rock and green seawater just under, should come to Italy where my heart lives, and discover the sights and sounds .. certainly discover them, and so do all northern writers; for take up handfuls of sonnetti, rime, poemetti, doings of those who never did anything else,—and try and make out, for yourself, what .. say, what flowers they tread on, or trees they walk under,—as you might bid them, those tree & flower loving creatures, pick out of our north poetry a notion of what our daisies and harebells and furze bushes and brambles are––“Odorose-fiorette, rose porporine, bianchissimi gigli”[9]––and which of you eternal triflers was it called yourself “Shelley” and so told me years ago that in the mountains it was a feast “when one should find those globes of deep red gold—which in the woods the strawberry-tree doth bear, suspended in their emerald atmosphere,”[10] so that when my Mule walked into a sorb-tree, not to tumble sheer over Monte Calvano,[11] and I felt the fruit against my face, the little ragged bare-legged guide fairly laughed at my knowing them so well—“Niursi—sorbi!”[12] No, no,—does not all Naples-bay and half Sicily, shore and inland, come flocking once a year to the Piedigrotta fête only to see the blessed King’s Volanti, or livery servants all in their best, as tho’ heaven opened? and would not I engage to bring the whole of the Piano (of Sorrento) on its knees to a red velvet dressing gown properly spangled over, before the priest that held it out on a pole had even begun his story of how Noah’s son Shem, the founder of Sorrento, threw it off to swim thither, as the world knows he did?[13] Oh, it makes one’s soul angry, so enough of it. —But never enough of telling you—bring all your sympathies, come with loosest sleeves and longest lace-lappets, and you and yours shall find “elbow room,” oh, shall you not! For never did man woman or child, Greek, Hebrew, or as Danish as our friend, like a thing, not to say love it, but I liked and loved it, one liking neutralizing the rebellious stir of its fellow, so that I do’n’t go about now wanting the fixed stars before my time,—this world has not escaped me, thank God,—and—what other people say is the best of it, may not escape me after all, tho’ until so very lately I made up my mind to do without it—perhaps, on that account, and to make fair amends to other people,—who, I have no right to say, complain without cause. I have been surprised, rather, with something not unlike illness of late—I have had a constant pain in the head for these two months, which only very rough exercise gets rid of, and which stops my “Luria” and much beside. I thought I never could be unwell. Just now all of it is gone, thanks to polking all night and walking home by broad daylight to the surprise of the thrushes in the bush here. And do you know I said “this must go, cannot mean to stay, so I will not tell Miss Barrett why this & this is not done,”—but I mean to tell you all, or more of, the truth, because you call me “flatterer”—so that my eyes widened again! I, and in what? And of whom, pray? Not of you, at all events,—of whom then? Do tell me, because I want to stand well with you—and am quite in earnest there. And “the flight of this Duchess,” to leave nothing out, is only the beginning of a story written some time ago, and given to poor Hood in his emergency at a day’s notice,[14]—the true stuff and story is all to come, the “Flight,” and what you allude to is the mere introduction—but the Magazine has passed into other hands[15] and I must put the rest in some “Bell” or other—it is one of my Dramatic Romances. —So is a certain “Saul” I should like to show you one day—an ominous liking,—for nobody ever sees what I do till it is printed. But as you do know the printed little part of me, I should not be sorry if, in justice, you knew all I have really done,—written in the portfolio there,[16]—tho’ that would be far enough from this me, that writes to you now. I should like to write something in concert with you—how I would try!

I have read your letter thro’ again: Does this clear up all the difficulty, and do you see that I never dreamed of “reproaching you for dealing out one sort of cards to me and everybody else”—but that .. why, “that” which I have, I hope, said, so need not resay. I will tell you: Sydney Smith laughs somewhere at some Methodist or other whose wont was, on meeting an acquaintance in the street, to open at once on him with some enquiry after the state of his soul[17]—Sydney knows better now, and sees that one might quite as wisely ask such questions as the price of Illinois stock or condition of glebe-land,—and I could say such

–––“could” .. the plague of it! So no more at present from your loving .. or, let me tell you I am going to see Mr Kenyon on the 12 inst.—that you do not tell me how you are, and that yet if you do not continue to improve in health .. I shall not see you—not—not—not—what “knots” to untie! Surely the wind that sets my chesnut-tree dancing, all its baby-cone-blossoms, green now, rocking like fairy castles on a hill in an earthquake,—that is south west, surely! God bless you, and me in that—and do write to me soon, and tell me who was the “flatterer,” and how he never was



Address: Miss Barrett, / 50 Wimpole St

Postmark: 8NT8 MY3 1845 O.

Docket, in EBB’s hand: 11 [altered from “10”].

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 53–57.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Cf. Titus 2:8.

2. Cf. Iliad, I, 50–52.

3. “Alas!”

4. Obviously a continuation of the allusion to Apollo shooting arrows at Achilles’s weak spot.

5. i.e., Improvisatore which EBB had mentioned to RB in letter 1870.

6. Lambertus Bos (1670–1717), a Dutch classical scholar, wrote the standard text on interpreting elliptical constructions in Greek.

7. “Understand, by supplying a missing word.”

8. See letter 1897.

9. “Sweet blossoms, purple roses, whitest lilies.”

10. Cf. Shelley, “Marenghi,” st. xiii.

11. Vico Alvano is a mountain near Sorrento. See “The Englishman in Italy,” in which RB incorporates these images.

12. “Yes sir—sorb apples!”

13. This legend was “claimed for it [Sorrento] by its reverend historian, who declares that it was founded by Shem, the son of Noah!” (Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy, 1853, p. 230). The “Festa di Pièdigrotta” is celebrated on 8 September at the church of Santa Maria di Pièdigrotta, near the entrance to the Grotto of Posilipo, in commemoration of the victory of Naples and Spain over Austria in 1744. The royal family drove to the church in their silver-gilt state carriages (“volanti”) to give thanks to the Virgin for Charles III’s victory (pp. 113 and p. 138).

14. Hood died on 3 May 1845.

15. After Hood’s death, Charles Rowcraft assumed the management of Hood’s Magazine, and he featured his serials The Bushranger of Van Dieman’s Land and Chronicles of the Fleet.

16. RB’s portfolio is now in the Armstrong Browning Library (see Reconstruction, H686).

17. As extracted from The Methodist Magazine by Sydney Smith for an article in The Edinburgh Review in 1808 which was reprinted in The Works of the Rev. Sydney Smith (2nd ed., 1840, vol. 1, p. 91). Smith had died on 22 February 1845.


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