1975.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 10, 308–312.


[15–17 July 1845] [1]

I suppose nobody is ever expected to acknowledge his or her “besetting sin”—it wd be unnatural—& therefore you will not be surprised to hear me deny the one imputed to me for mine. I deny it quite & directly. And if my denial goes for nothing, .. which is but reasonable, .. I might call in a great cloud of witnesses, [2]  .. a thundercloud, .. (talking of storms!) & even seek no further than this table for a first witness,—this letter, I had yesterday, which calls me .. let me see how many hard names .. “unbending,” .. “disdainful,” .. “cold hearted,” .. “arrogant,” .. yes, “arrogant, as women always are when men grow humble” [3]  .. there’s a charge against all possible & probable petticoats beyond mine & through it! Not that either they or mine deserve the charge—we do not,—to the lowest hem of us!—for I dont pass to the other extreme, mind, & adopt besetting sins ‘over the way’ & in antithesis. It’s an undeserved charge, & unprovoked! & in fact, the very flower of selflove selftormented into ill temper,—& shall remain unanswered, for me, .. & should, .. even if I could write mortal epigrams, as your Lamià [4] speaks them. Only it serves to help my assertion that people in general who know something of me, my dear friend, are not inclined to agree with you in particular, about my having an “over-pleasure in pleasing,” for a besetting sin. If you had spoken of my sister Henrietta indeed, you wd have been right—so right! but for me,—alas, my sins are not half as amiable, nor given to lean to virtue’s side with half such a grace. And then I have a pretension to speak the truth like a Roman, even in matters of literature, where Mr Kenyon says falseness is a fashion—& really & honestly I should not be afraid .. I shd have no reason to be afraid, .. if all the notes & letters written by my hand for years & years about presentation copies of poems & other sorts of books, were brought together & “conferred,” as they say of manuscripts, before my face—I shd not shrink & be ashamed. Not that I always tell the truth as I see it—but I never do speak falsely with intention & consciousness,—never—& I do not find that people of letters are sooner offended than others are, by the truth told in gentleness;—I do not remember to have offended anyone in this relation & by these means. Well!—but from me to you,—it is all different, you know—you must know how different it is. I can tell you truly what I think of this thing & of that thing in your ‘Duchess’—but I must of a necessity hesitate & fall into misgiving of the adequacy of my truth, so called. To judge at all of a work of yours, I must look up to it,—& far up—because whatever faculty I have, is included in your faculty, & with a great rim all round it besides! And thus, it is not at all from an over-pleasure in pleasing you, nor at all from an inclination to depreciate myself, that I speak & feel as I do & must on some occasions—it is simply the consequence of a true comprehension of you & of me—& apart from it, I shd not be abler, I think, but less able, to assist you in anything. I do wish you wd consider all this reasonably, & understand it as a third person would in a moment, & consent not to spoil the real pleasure I have & am about to have in your poetry, by nailing me up into a false position with your gold headed nails of chivalry, which wont hold to the wall through this summer. Now you will not answer this?—you will only understand it & me—& that I am not servile but sincere,—but earnest,—but meaning what I say—& when I say I am afraid, .. you will believe that I am afraid; & when I say I have misgivings, .. you will believe that I have misgivings .. you will trust me so far, & give me liberty to breathe & feel naturally .. according to my own nature. Probably or certainly rather, I have one advantage over you .. one, of which women are not fond of boasting—that of being older by years—for the Essay on Mind which was the first poem published by me,—(& rather more printed than published after all) the work of my earliest youth, half childhood half womanhood, was published in 1826 I see—& if I told Mr Kenyon not to let you see that book, it was not for the date, but because Coleridge’s daughter was right in calling it a mere “girl’s exercise”, [5] —because it is just that & no more, .. no expression whatever of my nature as it ever was .. pedantic, & in some things, pert, .. & such as altogether, & to do myself justice, (which I wd fain do of course) I was not in my whole life– Bad books are never like their writers, you know—& those underage books are generally bad– Also I have found it hard work to get into expression, though I began rhyming from my very infancy, much as you did, (& this, with no sympathy near to me—I have had to do without sympathy in the full sense—) & even in my Seraphim days, my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth .. from leading so conventual recluse a life, perhaps—& all my better poems were written last year, the very best being to come, if there shd be any life or courage to come—: I scarcely know. Sometimes, .. it is the real truth, .. I have haste to be done with it all. It is the real truth,—however to say so may be an ungrateful return for your kind & generous words .. which I do feel gratefully, let me otherwise feel as I will .. or must– But then you know you are liable to such prodigious mistakes about besetting sins & even besetting virtues—to such a set of small delusions, that are sure to break one by one, like other bubbles, as you draw in your breath, .. as I see by the light of my own star, my own particular star, the star I was born under, the star Wormwood [6]  .. on the opposite side of the heavens from the constellations of ‘the Lyre & the Crown.’ [7] In the meantime, it is difficult to thank you, or not to thank you, for all your kindnesses—αλγος δὲ σιγᾳν. [8] Only Mrs Jameson told me of Lady Byron’s saying [‘]‘that she knows she is burnt everyday in effigy by half the world, but that the effigy is so unlike herself as to be inoffensive to her” [9]  .. and just so, or rather just in the converse of so, is it with me & your kindnesses. They are meant for quite another than I, & are too far to be so near. The comfort is .. in seeing you throw all these ducats out of the window, .. (& how many ducats go in a figure to a “dozen Duchesses,” it is profane to calculate) the comfort is that you will not be the poorer for it in the end,—since the people beneath, are honest enough to push them back under the door. Rather a bleak comfort & occupation though!—& you may find better work for your friends, who are (some of them) weary even unto death of the uses of this life. [10] And now, you who are generous, be generous, .. & take no notice of all this– I speak of myself, not of you—so there is nothing for you to contradict or discuss—& if there were, you wd be really kind & give me my way in it– Also you may take courage,—for I promise not to vex you by thanking you against your will, .. more than may be helped.

Some of this letter was written before yesterday & in reply of course to yours—so it is to pass for two letters, being long enough for just six– Yesterday you must have wondered at me for being in such a maze altogether about the poems—& so now I rise to explain that it was assuredly the wine song & no other which I read of yours in Hood’s. [11] And then, what did I say of the Dante & Beatrice? Because what I referred to, was the exquisite page or two or three on that subject in the “Pentameron”– [12] I do not remember anything else of Landor’s with the same bearing—do you? As to Montaigne, with the threads of my thoughts smoothly disentangled, I can see nothing coloured by him .. nothing. Do bring all the Hood poems of your own—inclusive of the Tokay, because I read it in such haste as to whirl up all the dust you saw, from the wheels of my chariot. The Duchess is past speaking of here—but you will see how I am delighted. And we must make speed,—only taking care of your head .. for I heard today that Papa & my aunt are discussing the question of sending me off either to Alexandria or Malta for the winter. Oh—it is quite a passing talk & thought, I dare say!—& it wd not be in any case, until September or October; tho’ in every case, I suppose, I [13] should not be much consulted .. & all cases & places wd seem better to me (if I were) than Madeira which the physicians used to threaten me with long ago. So take care of your headache & let us have the Bells rung out clear before the summer ends—& pray dont say again anything about clear consciences or unclear ones, in granting me the privelege of reading your manuscripts—which is all clear privelege to me, with pride & gladness waiting on it. May God bless you always my dear friend!–


You left behind your sister’s little basket—but I hope you did not forget to thank her for my carnations–

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

Postmarks: 12NN12 JY18 1845 A; 1AN1 JY18 1845.

Docket, in RB’s hand: 32.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 124–128 (as 16–17 July 1845).

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Inclusive dating provided by internal reference and postmark.

2. Hebrews 12:1.

3. Doubtless the Rev. George Barrett Hunter whose jealous reaction to the success of EBB’s Poems (1844), in the form of disparaging remarks about the role of women, is noted in letters 1845 and 1850.

4. See letter 1890, note 2.

5. John Kenyon was probably EBB’s source of Sara Coleridge’s comments; for other opinions of EBB’s poetry, by Sara Coleridge, see SD1199 and SD1225. For EBB’s earlier comments about An Essay on Mind, see letters 1652 and 1672.

6. Cf. Revelations 8:11. EBB had used this image in “A Night-Watch by the Sea,” line 38, which was published in The Monthly Chronicle for April 1840 and reprinted as Appendix III in Mrs Browning (1980) by Rosalie Mander. The image also appears in Aurora Leigh.

7. The allusion is to the preface to Paracelsus.

8. “Painful to keep it silent” (Prometheus Bound, line 200, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth).

9. We have been unable to verify this anecdote.

10. Cf. Hamlet, I, 2, 133–134.

11. “Claret and Tokay” had been published in Hood’s Magazine, June 1844, p. 525.

12. The Pentameron and Pentalogia (1837) by W.S. Landor, pp. 237–240.

13. Underscored twice.


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