Correspondence

1926.  RB to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 233–236.

[London]

Saturday Mg [Postmark: 24 May 1845]

Don’t you remember I told you, once on a time, that you “knew nothing of me”? whereat you demurred—but I meant what I said, & knew it was so. To be grand in a simile, for every poor speck of a Vesuvius or a Stromboli in my microcosm there are huge layers of ice and pits of black cold water—and I make the most of my two or three fire-eyes, because I know by experience, alas, how these tend to extinction—and the ice grows & grows—still this last is true part of me, most characteristic part, best part perhaps, and I disown nothing:—only,—when you talked of “knowing me”!– Still, I am so utterly unused, of these late years particularly, to dream of communicating anything about that to another person (all my writings are purely dramatic as I am always anxious to say) that when I make never so little an attempt, no wonder if I bungle notably—“language,” too, is an organ that never studded this heavy head of mine. Will you not think me very brutal if I tell you I could almost smile at your misapprehension of what I meant to write?—yet I will tell you, because it will undo the bad effect of my thoughtlessness, and at the same time exemplify the point I have all along been honestly earnest to set you right upon—my real inferiority to you,—just that and no more. I wrote to you, in an unwise moment, on the spur of being again “thanked,” and, unwisely writing just as if thinking to myself, said what must have looked absurd enough as seen apart from the horrible counterbalancing never-to-be-written rest of me—by the side of which, could it be written & put before you, my note would sink to its proper & relative place, and become a mere “thank you for your good opinion—which I assure you is far too generous,—for I really believe you to be my superior in many respects, and feel uncomfortable till you see that, too .. since I hope for your sympathy & assistance, and frankness is everything in such a case–” I do assure you, that had you read my note, only having “known” so much of me as is implied in having inspected, for instance, the contents, merely, of that fatal and often-referred-to “portfolio” there (Dii meliora piis!)[1]—you would see in it, (the note not the portfolio) the blandest utterance ever mild gentleman gave birth to: but I forgot that one may make too much noise in a silent place by playing the few notes on the “ear piercing fife” which, in Othello’s regimental band, might have been thumped into decent subordination by his “spirit stirring drum”[2]—to say nothing of gong and ophicleide. Will you forgive me, on promise to remember for the future, and be more considerate? Not that you must too much despise me, neither; nor, of all things, apprehend I am attitudinizing à la Byron, and giving you to understand unutterable somethings, longings for Lethe[3] and all that—far from it! I never committed murders, and sleep the soundest of sleeps—but “the heart is desperately wicked,”[4] that is true, and tho’ I dare not say “I know” mine, yet I have had signal opportunities, I who began life from the beginning, and can forget nothing (but names, and the date of the battle of Waterloo,) and have known good & wicked men and women, gentle & simple, shaking hands with Edmund Kean and Father Mathew, you and—Ottima![5] Then, I had a certain faculty of self-consciousness years, years ago, at which John Mill wondered, and which ought to be improved by this time,[6] if constant use helps at all—and, meaning, on the whole, to be a Poet, if not the Poet .. for I am vain and ambitious some nights,—I do myself justice, and dare call things by their names to myself, and say boldly, this I love, this I hate, this I would do, this I would not do, under all kinds of circumstances,—and talking (thinking) in this style to myself, and beginning however tremblingly, in spite of conviction, to write in this style for myself—on the top of the desk which contains my “Songs of the Poets—No 1. M.P.,”[7] I wrote—what you now forgive, I know! Because I am, from my heart, sorry that by a foolish fit of inconsideration I should have given pain for a minute to you, towards whom, on every account, I would rather soften and “sleeken every word—as to a bird”[8] .. (and, not such a bird as my black self that go screeching about the world for “dead horse”—corvus (picus)—mirandola!)[9] I, too, who have been at such pains to acquire the reputation I enjoy in the world,—(ask Mr Kenyon,) & who dine, and wine, and dance and enhance the company’s pleasure till they make me ill and I keep house, as of late: Mr Kenyon, (for I only quote where you may verify if you please) he says my common sense strikes him, and its contrast with my muddy metaphysical poetry! And so it shall strike you—for tho’ I am glad that, since you did misunderstand me, you said so, and have given me an opportunity of doing by another way what I wished to do in that,—yet, if you had not alluded to my writing, as I meant you should not, you would have certainly understood something of its drift when you found me next Tuesday precisely the same quiet (no, for I feel I speak too loudly, in spite of your kind disclaimer, but—) the same mild man-about-town you were gracious to, the other morning—for, indeed, my own way of worldly life is marked out long ago, as precisely as yours can be, and I am set going with a hand, winker-wise, on each side of my head, and a directing finger before my eyes, to say nothing of an instinctive dread I have that a certain whip-lash is vibrating somewhere in the neighbourhood in playful readiness! So “I hope here be proofs,”[10] to Dogberry’s satisfaction that, first, I am but a very poor creature compared to you and entitled by my wants to look up to you,—all I meant to say from the first of the first—and that, next, I shall be too much punished if, for this piece of mere inconsideration, you deprive me, more or less, or sooner or later, of the pleasure of seeing you,—a little overboisterous gratitude for which, perhaps, caused all the mischief! The reasons you give for deferring my visit next week are too cogent for me to dispute—that is too true—and, being now & henceforward “on my good behaviour,” I will at once cheerfully submit to them, if needs must—but should your mere kindness and forethought, as I half suspect, have induced you to take such a step, you will now smile, with me, at this new and very unnecessary addition to the “fears of me” I had got so triumphantly over in your case! Wise man, was I not, to clench my first favorable impression so adroitly .. like a recent Cambridge worthy, my sister heard of; who, being on his theological (or rather, scripture-historical) examination, was asked by the Tutor, who wished to let him off easily, “who was the first King of Israel”?– “Saul” answered the trembling youth. “Good!” nodded approvingly the Tutor– “Otherwise called Paul,”[11] subjoined the youth in his elation! Now I have begged pardon, and blushingly assured you that was only a slip of the tongue, and that I did really mean all the while, (Paul or no Paul), the veritable son of Kish, he that owned the asses, and found listening to the harp the best of all things for an evil spirit! Pray write me a line to say, “Oh—if that’s all!” and remember me for good (which is very compatible with a moment’s stupidity) and let me not for one fault, (and that the only one that shall be), lose my pleasure .. for your friendship I am sure I have not lost—God bless you, my dear friend!

R Browning

And, by the way, will it not be better, as co-operating with you more effectually in your kind promise to forget the “printer’s error” in my blotted proof, to send me back that same “proof,” if you have not inflicted proper & summary justice on it? When Mephistopheles last came to see us in this world ou[t]side here, he counselled sundry of us “never to write a letter,—and never to burn one”—do you know that? But I never mind what I am told! Seriously, I am ashamed– I shall next ask a servant for my boots in the “high fantastical”[12] style of my own “Luria”!

Address: Miss Barrett, / 50 Wimpole St

Postmark: PD 8NT MY24 1845.

Docket, in EBB’s hand: 17.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 74–77.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. “Heaven grant a happier lot to the good” (Vergil, Georgics, III, 513, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough).

2. Othello, III, 3, 352.

3. i.e., “forgetfulness”; in Greek mythology one of the rivers of Hades signifying forgetfulness.

4. Cf. Jeremiah 17:9.

5. The adultress in RB’s Pippa Passes. Edmund Kean, the actor whose performance as Richard III had inspired RB, is alluded to in Pauline (lines 669–675). RB saw Father Mathew in 1843; see letter 1397, note 1.

6. See letter 1851, note 13.

7. Cf. RB’s comments in letter 1837.

8. Cf. EBB’s “A Portrait” in Poems (1844), lines 53–54.

9. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) was an Italian philosopher; “corvus” is Latin for “crow” or “raven,” and “picus” for “magpie.”

10. Cf. “I hope here be truths.” Measure for Measure, II, 1, 127. Perhaps RB meant this misapplication of “proofs” for “truths” jokingly, hence the reference to Dogberry (Pompey).

11. Cf. Acts 13:9. RB’s anecdote refers to the story of King Saul in I Samuel.

12. Twelfth Night, I, 1, 15.

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