2025.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 65–69.


Tuesday– [Postmark: 9 September 1845]

One reason against printing the tragedies now, is your not being well enough for the necessary work connected with them, .. a sure reason & strong .. nay, chiefest of all. Plainly you are unfit for work now—& even to complete the preparation of the lyrics & take them through the press, may be too much for you I am afraid,—& if so, why you will not do it .. will you? .. you will wait for another year, .. or at least be satisfied for this, with bringing out a number of the old size, [1] consisting of such poems as are fairly finished & require no retouching. ‘Saul’ for instance, you might leave–—! You will not let me hear when I am gone, of your being ill—you will take care .. will you not? Because you see .. or rather I see .. you are not looking well at all—no, you are not! and even if you do not care for that, you should & must care to consider how unavailing it will be for you to hold those golden keys of the future with a more resolute hand than your contemporaries, should you suffer yourself to be struck down before the gate .. should you lose the physical power while keeping the heart & will. Heart & will are great things, & sufficient things in your case—but after all we carry a barrow-full of clay about with us, & we must carry it a little carefully if we mean to keep to the path & not run zigzag into the border of the garden. A figure which reminds me .. & I wanted no figure to remind me .. to ask you to thank your sister for me & from me for all her kindness about the flowers. Now you will not forget?—you must not. When I think of the repeated trouble she has taken week after week, & all for a stranger, I must think again that it has been very kind—& I take the liberty of saying so moreover … as I am not thanking you. Also these flowers of yesterday which yesterday you disdained so, look full of summer & are full of fragrance, & when they seem to say that it is not September, I am willing to be lied to just so. For I wish it were not September– I wish it were July .. or November .. two months before or after: & that this journey were thrown behind or in front .. anywhere to be out of sight. You do not know the courage it requires to hold the intention of it fast through what I feel sometimes—if it (the courage) had been prophesied to me only a year ago, the prophet wd have been laughed to scorn– [2] Well!—but I want you to see George’s letter, & how he & Mrs Hedley, when she saw Papa’s note of consent to me, gave unhesitating counsel. Burn it when you have read it. It is addressed to me .. which you will doubt from the address of it perhaps .. seeing that it goes βα .. ρβαριζων. [3] We are famous in this house for what are called nic-names .. though a few of us have escaped rather by a caprice than a reason: and I am never called anything else (never at all) except by the nom de paix [4] which you find written in the letter,—proving as Mr Kenyon says, that I am just “half a Ba-by” .. no more nor less:—& in fact the name has that precise definition. [5] Burn the note when you have read it.

And then I take it into my head as you do not distinguish my sisters, you say, one from the other, to send you my own account of them in these enclosed ‘sonnets’ [6] which were written a few weeks ago; & though only pretending to be ‘sketches,’ pretend to be like, as far as they go, & are like, my brothers thought, when I ‘showed them against’ a profile drawn in pencil by Alfred, on the same subjects. I was laughing & maintaining that mine should be as like as his—& he yielded the point to me. So it is mere portrait-painting—& you who are in ‘high art’ must not be too scornful. Henrietta is the elder, & the one who brought you into this room first—& Arabel who means to go with me to Pisa, has been the most with me through my illness & is the least wanted in the house here, .. & perhaps .. perhaps—is my favorite—though my heart smites me while I write that unlawful word– They are both affectionate & kind to me in all things, & good & loveable in their own beings—very unlike, for the rest,—one, most caring for the Polka, .. & the other for the sermon preached at Paddington chapel, .. that is Arabel––so if ever you happen to know her you must try not to say before her how “much you hate” &c. Henrietta always “managed” everything in the house even before I was ill, .. because she liked it & I did’nt, & I waived my right to the sceptre of dinner-ordering. [7]

I have been thinking much of your ‘Sordello’ since you spoke of it—& even, I had thought much of it before you spoke of it yesterday,—feeling that it might be thrown out into the light by your hand & greatly justify the additional effort. It is like a noble picture with its face to the wall just now––or at least, in the shadow. And so worthy as it is of you in all ways! individual all through: you have made even the darkness of it! And such a work as it might become if you chose .. if you put your will to it.!! What I meant to say yesterday was not that it wanted more additional verses than the ‘ten per cent’ you spoke of [8]  .. though it does perhaps .. so much as that (to my mind) it wants drawing together & fortifying in the connections & associations .. which hang as loosely every here & there, as those in a dream, & confound the reader who persists in thinking himself awake.

How do you mean that I am ‘lenient’? Do you not believe that I tell you what I think, & as I think it? I may think wrong, to be sure—but that is not my fault:—& so there is no use reproaching me generally, .. unless you can convict me definitely at the same time:—is there, now?

And I have been reading & admiring these letters of Mr Carlyle & receiving the greatest pleasure from them in every way. He is greatly himself always—which is the hardest thing for a man to be, perhaps. And what his appreciation of you is, it is easy to see—& what he expects from you:—notwithstanding that prodigious advice of his, to write your next work in prose.!! [9] —Also Mrs Carlyle’s letter! [10] —thank you for letting me see it– I admire that too!– It is as ingenious ‘a case’ against poor Keats, as could well be drawn—but nobody who knew very deeply what poetry is, could, you know, draw any case against him– A poet of the senses, he may be & is, just as she says—but then it is of the senses idealized; & no dream in a ‘store-room’ wd ever be like the ‘Eve of St Agnes,’ unless dreamed by some ‘animosus infans,’ [11] like Keats himself. Still it is all true .. is’nt it? .. what she observes of the want of thought as thought. He was a seer—strictly speaking. —And what noble oppositions—(to go back to Carlyle’s letters[)]––he writes to the things you were speaking of yesterday! These letters are as good as Milton’s picture for convicting & putting to shame. Is not the difference between the men of our day & ‘the giants which were on the earth’, [12] less—far less .. in the faculty .. in the gift, .. or in the general intellect, .. than in the stature of the soul itself? Our inferiority is not in what we can do, but in what we are. We should write poems like Milton if [we] lived them like Milton.

I write all this just to show, I suppose, that I am not industrious as you did me the honour of apprehending that I was going to be .. packing trunks perhaps .. or what else in the way of ‘active usefulness.’

Say how you are—will you? And do take care, & walk & do what is good for you. I shall be able to see you twice before I go. And oh, this going! Pray for me dearest friend– May God bless you.


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

Postmark: 8NT8 SP9 1845 E.

Docket, in RB’s hand: 50.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 185–188.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. i.e., sixteen pages, as in the first, third, and fifth numbers of the series. The sixth had consisted of twenty pages, as did the fourth. The seventh ended up being twenty-four pages.

2. Cf. Isaiah 37:22.

3. “Acting like a barbarian.”

4. “Name of peace.”

5. For a discussion of the derivation and pronunciation of EBB’s nickname, see letter 1, note 5.

6. Entitled “Two Sketches, No. I. and No. II.,” they depict Henrietta and Arabel respectively. Previous to this, in response to a request from Mary Milner in June 1845 (see letter 1942), the second appeared as “Sonnet: A Sketch” in The Christian Mother’s Magazine for October 1845 (p. 635). They first appeared together in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, June 1847, and were later collected in Poems (1850) as “Two Sketches. I. and II.” See Reconstruction, D1061–64.

7. As the eldest female member of the family, EBB would have been responsible for domestic and household activities and servants; however, due to her health, and by choice, she relinquished these duties to her sister, Henrietta.

8. Although RB revised Sordello for publication in later editions of his poetry, the rewriting suggested here was never carried out.

9. In letter 1843, EBB asked RB if Carlyle had given him his usual advice, i.e., to write prose instead of poetry. Although RB did not answer EBB specifically (letter 1851), Carlyle had given him such advice four years earlier—see letter 822.

10. We have been unable to trace the present whereabouts of this letter.

11. “Courageous child.”

12. Cf. Genesis 6:4.


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