2156. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 279–283.
Sunday– [4 January 1846]
When you get Mr Horne’s book you will understand how, after reading just the first & the last poems, I could not help speaking coldly a little of it—& in fact, estimating his power as much as you can do, I did think & do, that the last was unworthy of him, & that the first might have been written by a writer of one tenth of his faculty. But last night I read the ‘Monk of Swineshead Abby’ & the ‘Three Knights of Camelott’ & ‘Bedd Gelert’ & found them all of different stuff, better[,] stronger, more consistent, & read them with pleasure & admiration. Do you remember this application, among the countless ones of shadow to the transiency of life? I give the first two lines for clearness–
‘Like to the cloud upon the hill
We are a moment seen
Or the shadow of the windmill-sails
Across yon sunny slope of green.’
New or not, & I dont remember it elsewhere, it is just & beautiful I think. Think how the shadow of the windmill-sail just touches the ground on a bright windy day! the shadow of a bird flying is not faster!– Then the ‘Three Knights’ has beautiful things, with more definite & distinct images than he is apt to show—for his character is a vague grand massiveness .. like Stonehenge—or at least, if “towers & battlements he sees[’]’ they are ‘bosomed high’ in dusky clouds .. it is a “passion-created imagery” which has no clear outline. In this ballad of the ‘Knights’, & in the Monks too, we may look at things, as on the satyr who swears by his horns & makes riot with his kind afterwards, ‘While, holding beards, they dance in pairs’ .. & that is all excellent & reminds one of those fine sylvan festivals, in Orion. But now tell me if you like altogether ‘Ben Capstan’ & if you consider the sailor-idiom to be lawful in poetry––because I do not indeed. On the same principle we may have Yorkshire & Somersetshire ‘sweet Doric’,—& do recollect what it ended in of old, in the Blowsibella heroines– Then for the elf story .. why should such things be written by men like Mr Horne? I am vexed at it. Shakespeare & Fletcher did not write so about fairies:—Drayton did not. Look at the exquisite Nymphidia, with its subtle sylvan consistency, & then at the lumbering course .. ‘machina intersit’ .. Grandmama Grey! .. to say nothing of the ‘small dog’ that is’nt the ‘small boy’– Mr Horne succeeds better on a larger canvass, & with weightier material .. with blank verse rather than lyrics. He cannot make a fine stroke. He wants subtlety & elasticity in the thought & expression– Remember, I admire him honestly & earnestly. No one has admired more than I, the ‘Death of Marlowe’, scenes in Cosmo, & Orion in much of it– But now tell me if you can accept with the same stretched out hand all these lyrical poems? I am going to write to him as much homage as can come truly. Who combines different faculties as you do; striking the whole octave? No one, at present in the world.
Dearest, after you went away yesterday & I began to consider, I found that there was nothing to be so over-glad about in the matter of the letters, for that, sunday coming next to saturday, the best now is only as good as the worst before, & I cant hear from you until monday .. monday! Did you think of that .. you who took the credit of acceding so meekly!– I shall not praise you in return at any rate. I shall have to wait .. till what oclock on monday,––tempted in the meanwhile to fall into controversy against the “new moons & sabbath days” & the pausing of the post in consequence.
You never guessed perhaps .. what I look back to at this moment in the physiology of our intercourse, … the curious double feeling I had about you .. you personally, & you as the writer of these letters, .. & the crisis of the feeling, when I was positively vexed & jealous of myself for not succeeding better in making a unity of the two. I could not!– And moreover I could not help but that the writer of the letters seemed nearer to me, long .. long .. & in spite of the postmark .. than did the personal visitor who confounded me, & left me constantly under such an impression of its being all dream-work on his side, that I have stamped my feet on this floor with impatience to think of having to wait so many hours before the ‘candid’ closing letter cd come with its confession of an illusion. ‘People say’, I used to think, ‘that women always know .. & certainly I do not know .. & therefore .. therefore’– The logic crushed on like Juggernaut’s car. But in the letters it was different: the dear letters took me on the side of my own ideal life where I was able to stand a little upright & look round. I could read such letters for ever & answer them after a fashion .. that, I felt from the beginning. But you—!.
Monday. Never too early can the light come. Thank you for my letter!– Yet you look askance at me over ‘newt & toad,’ & praise so the Elf story that I am ashamed to send you my ill humour on the same head. And you really like that? admire it? Grandmama Grey & the night caps & all? & “shoetye & blue sky”?—and is it really wrong of me … to like certainly some touches & images, but not the whole, .. not the poem as a whole? I can take delight in the fantastical, & in the grotesque—but here there is a want of life & consistency, as it seems to me!—the elf is no elf & speaks no elf-tongue! it is not the right key to touch, .. this, .. for supernatural music. So I fancy at least—but I will try the poem again presently. You must be right—unless it should be your over-goodness opposed to my over-badness– I will not be sure. Or you wrote perhaps in an accidental mood of most excellent critical smoothness, such as Mr Fo[r]ster did his last Examiner in, when he gave the all-hail to Mr Harness as one of the best dramatists of the age!! Ah no!—not such as Mr Fo[r]ster’s. Your soul does not enter into his secret—there can be nothing in common between you. For him to say such a word—he who knows—or ought to know!—— And now let us agree & admire the bowing of the old minstrel over Bedd Gelert’s unfilled grave–
‘The long beard fell like snow into the grave
With solemn grace’.
A poet, a friend, a generous man Mr Horne is, even if no laureate for the fairies.
I have this moment a parcel of books viâ Mr Moxon—Miss Martineau’s two volumes—& Mr Bailey sends his ‘Festus’ very kindly, .. & “Woman in the nineteenth century” from America from a Mrs or a Miss Fuller– How I hate those ‘Women of England’ ‘Women & their mission’ & the rest– As if any possible good were to be done by such expositions of rights & wrongs.
Your letter would be worth them all, if you were less you! I mean, just this letter, .. all alive as it is with crawling buzzing wriggling cold-blooded warm-blooded creatures .. as all alive as your own pedant’s book in the tree. And do you know, I think I like frogs too—particularly the very little leaping frogs, which are so highhearted as to emulate the birds. I remember being scolded by my nurses for taking them up in my hands & letting them leap from one hand to the other. But for the toad!—why, at the end of the row of narrow beds which we called our gardens when we were children, grew an old thorn, & in the hollow of the root of the thorn, lived a toad, a great ancient toad, whom I, for one, never dared approach too nearly. That he ‘wore a jewel in his head’ I doubted nothing at all– You might see it glitter if you stooped & looked steadily into the hole. And on days when he came out & sate swelling his black sides, I never looked steadily,—I would run a hundred yards round through the shrubs, deeper than knee-deep in the long wet grass & nettles, rather than go past him where he sate,—being steadily of opinion in the profundity of my natural history-learning, that if he took it into his toad’s head to spit at me I should drop down dead in a moment, poisoned as by one of the Medici.
Oh—and I had a field-mouse for a pet once, & should have joined my sisters in a rat’s nest if I had not been ill at the time: (as it was, the little rats were tenderly smothered by over-love!) and blue-bottle flies I used to feed, & hated your spiders for them,—yet no, not much. My aversion proper .. call it horror rather .. was for the silent, cold, clinging, gliding bat,—& even now, I think, I could not sleep in the room with that strange bird-mouse-creature, as it glides round the ceiling silently, silently as it[s] shadow does on the floor– If you listen or look, there is not a wave of the wing—the wing never waves! A bird without a feather!—a beast that flies!—and so cold!—as cold as a fish!– It is the most supernatural-seeming of natural things– And then to see how when the windows are open at night those bats come sailing .. without a sound—& go .. you cannot guess where!—fade with the night-blackness!
You have not been well—which is my first thought if not my first word. Do walk, & do not work,—& think .. what I could be thinking of, if I did not think of you .. dear, dearest! ‘As the doves fly to the windows,’ so I think of you! As the prisoners think of liberty, as the dying think of Heaven, so I think of you. When I look up straight to God .. nothing, no one, used to intercept me—now there is you—only you under Him! Do not use such words as those therefore any more, nor say that you are not to be thought of so & so– You are to be thought of every way. You must know what you are to me if you know at all what I am,—& what I should be but for you.
So .. love me a little, with the spiders & the toads & the lizards! love me as you love the efts—and I will believe in you as you believe .... in Ælian– Will that do?
Say how you are when you write—& write.
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmarks: 1846 JA6 8Mg8 B; 10FN10 JA6 1846 A.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 98.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 358–362.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Date provided by postmark.
2. The reviewer in The Athenæum of 14 February 1846 (no. 955, pp. 168–169), referring to “The Monk of Swineshead Abbey,” called it “the best thing in the book,” and added “our feelings have been strongly touched by the ballad of ‘Bedd Gelert’” (p. 169).
3. “The Monk of Swineshead Abbey,” lines 353–356.
4. “The Three Knights of Camelott: a Fairy Tale.”
5. “The Three Knights of Camelott,” lines 153ff.
6. Line 365.
7. “Ben Capstan: a Ballad of the Night-Watch.”
8. EBB seems to suggest a heroine comprising a blowzalinda (or Blouzelinda), the rustic but charming milkmaid character in John Gay’s The Shepherd’s Week (1714) and a “dowsabell,” as in Drayton’s Ballad of Dowsabell, which is an English form of “Dulcibella,” generally meaning sweetheart (OED).
9. “The Elf of the Woodlands: a Child’s Story.”
10. “Let no god interfere” (cf. Horace, Ars Poetica, 191–192, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough). Drayton’s fairy poem appeared in 1627.
11. “The Elf of the Woodlands,” line 98.
12. Cf. Isaiah 1:13.
13. “The Elf of the Woodlands,” lines 334–335.
14. In a review of The Earl of Gowrie by James White in the 3 January 1846 issue of The Examiner, Forster called Harness one of the most successful playwrights “of more modern days” (p. 3).
15. “Bedd Gelert. A Welsh Legend of the Valley and Tomb,” lines 207–208.
16. See letter 2150, note 7.
17. Festus, by Philip James Bailey, was first published in 1839. EBB had been given a copy by her father (see Reconstruction, A146); Bailey’s gift was a copy of the newly-published 1845 edition (see Reconstruction, A147). Present whereabouts of both copies unknown.
18. Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller was published in 1845 in New York. A new edition of The Women of England; their several Duties and Domestic Habits by Sarah Ellis (née Stickney, d. 1872) had recently appeared.
19. i.e., in RB’s “Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis,” just published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.
20. Cf. As You Like It, II, 1, 12–14.
21. Cf. Isaiah 60:8.