Correspondence

2144.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 251–253.

[London]

Saturday. [Postmark: 20 December 1845]

I have your letter now, & now I am sorry I sent mine. If I wrote that you had “forgotten to write,” I did not mean it,—not a word! If I had meant it I should not have written it. But it would have been better for every reason to have waited just a little longer before writing at all. A besetting sin of mine is an impatience which makes people laugh when it does not entangle their silks, pull their knots tighter, & tear their books in cutting them open.

How right you are about Mr Lowell!– He has a refined fancy & is graceful for an American critic, but the truth is, otherwise, that he knows nothing of English poetry or the next thing to nothing, & has merely had a dream of the early dramatists. The amount of his reading in that direction is an article in the Retrospective Review which contains extracts,[1]—& he re-extracts the extracts, re-quotes the quotations, &, ‘a pede Herculem,’[2] from the foot infers the man, or rather from the sandal-string of the foot, infers & judges the soul of the man—it is comparative anatomy under the most speculative conditions. How a writer of his talents & pretentions could make up his mind to make up a book on such slight substratum, is a curious proof of the state of literature in America. Do you not think so? Why a lecturer on the English Dramatists for a “Young Ladies’ Academy” here in England, might take it to be necessary to have better information than he could gather from an odd volume of an old review! And then, Mr Lowell’s naïveté in showing his authority, .. as if the Elizabethan poets lay mouldering in inaccessible manuscript somewhere below the lowest deep of Shakespeare’s grave, .. is curious beyond the rest!– Altogether, the fact is an epigram on the surface-literature of America. As you say, their books do not suit us:—Mrs Markham might as well send her compendium of the History of France to M. Thiers–[3] If they knew more, they could not give parseley crowns to their own native poets, when there is greater merit among the rabbits. Mrs Sigourney has just sent me, .. just this morning .. her “Scenes in my native land”[4]—&, peeping between the uncut leaves, I read of the poet Hillhouse,[5] of “sublime spirit & Miltonic energy,” standing in “the temple of Fame” as if it were built on purpose for him!– I suppose he is like most of the American poets .. who are shadows of the true .. as flat as a shadow, as colourless as a shadow, as lifeless & as transitory. Mr Lowell himself is, in his verse-books, poetical, if not a poet—& certainly this little book we are talking of, is graceful enough in some ways—you would call it a pretty book—would you not? Two or three letters I have had from him .. all very kind!—& that reminds me, alas! of some ineffable ingratitude on my own part! When one’s conscience grows too heavy, there is nothing for it but to throw it away!——

Do you remember how I tried to tell you what he said of you, & how you would not let me?

Mr Mathews said of him .. having met him once in society, .. that he was the concentration of conceit in appearance & manner. But since then, they seem to be on better terms.

Where is the meaning, pray, of EBC?—your meaning, I mean.?

My true initials are EBMB—my long name, as opposed to my short one, being … Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett![6]—there’s a full length to take away one’s breath!– Christian name .. Elizabeth Barrett:—surname, Moulton Barrett. So long it is, that to make it portable, I fell into the habit of doubling it up & packing it closely, .. & of forgetting that I was a Moulton, altogether. One might as well write the alphabet as all four initials. Yet our family-name is Moulton Barrett, & my brothers reproach me sometimes for sacrificing the governorship of an old town in Norfolk with a little honorable verdigris from the Heralds’ Office– As if I cared for the Retrospective Review![7] Nevertheless it is true that I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave!– Cursed we are from generation to generation!– I seem to hear the ‘Commination service’.[8]

May God bless you always, always!—beyond the always of this world!——

Your EBB—

Mr Dickens’s ‘Cricket’ sings repetitions, &, with considerable beauty, is extravagant– It does not appear to me by any means one of his most successful productions, though quite free from what was reproached as bitterness & one-sidedness, last year.[9]

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You do not say how you are—not a word!– And you are wrong in saying that you “ought to have written”—as if “ought” could be in place so! You neveroughtto write to me, you know! or rather .. if you ever think you ought, you ought not! Which is a speaking of mysteries on my part![10]

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

Postmark: 5Ev5 DE20 1845 A.

Dockets, in RB’s hand: 93.; + Tuesday / Dec 23. / 3–4¾ p.m. [36].

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 332–334.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. We have been unable to trace such an article in The Retrospective Review (1820–28).

2. The usual form is “ex pede, Herculem” (“from the foot, Hercules”). Aulus Gellius (fl. ca. 130 A.D.) described in his Noctes Atticæ (bk. I, cap. 1) how it was inferred from the size of Hercules’ footprint that he was much taller than other men; in a more general sense, the phrase signifies the deduction of the whole from a part.

3. Elizabeth Penrose (née Cartwright, 1780–1837) wrote books for young people under the pseudonym “Mrs. Markham.” A History of France, with conversations at the end of each chapter (2 vols., 1828) was the first of many editions of her history of France. The beginning of History of the Consulate and Empire by Louis Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877) appeared in 1845 and was completed in 1862.

4. Lydia Sigourney’s Scenes in my Native Land had just been published in Boston and London.

5. These comments on James Abraham Hillhouse (1789–1841) appeared in an essay entitled “Moonlight at Sachem’s Wood, New Haven, Connecticut” (p. 262).

6. EBB has written her name in very large letters.

7. EBB’s earliest known paternal ancestor is Robert Moulton (fl. 1535) who was from Norfolk. Her great-great grandfather Thomas Moulton was admitted Burgess for Gt. Yarmouth, Norfolk, 8 July 1702. The Retrospective Review included a section on genealogy and heraldry.

8. An adaptation of the ancient service immediately preceding the celebration of Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday. The service, as described in The Book of Common Prayer, is a “denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners.”

9. Dickens’s 1844 Christmas story The Chimes had aroused controversy because of its subject matter of conditions and treatment of the poor. The reviewer of his 1845 story, The Cricket on the Hearth, a Fairy Tale of Home, in The Athenæum (no. 947, 20 December 1845) said it had been wondered whether Dickens “would again read a social or political lesson, and risk a new controversy on matters of opinion or practice, or retire to the ground of fancy and feeling. … One glance at the book, however, soon convinced us that it was an attempt to blend the fantastic and actual in an argument” (p. 1219).

10. Cf. I Corinthians 14:2.

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