2175. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 318–320.
Thursday morning. [15 January 1846]
Our letters have crossed; &, mine being the longest, I have a right to expect another directly, I think. I have been calculating,—& it seems to me .. now what I am going to say may take its place among the paradoxes, .. that I gain most by the short letters. Last week the only long one came last, & I was quite contented that the ‘old friend’ should come to see you on saturday & make you send me two instead of the single one I looked for: it was a clear gain the little short note, and the letter arrived all the same. I remember when I was a child, liking to have two shillings & sixpence better than half a crown—and now it is the same with this fairy money .. which will never turn all into pebbles, or beans .. whatever the chronicles may say of precedents.
Arabel did tell Mr Kenyon (she told me) that “Mr Browning would soon go away” .. in reply to an observation of his, that ‘he would not stay as I had company’ .. & altogether it was better:—the lamp made it look late. But you do not appear in the least remorseful for being tempted of my black devil, my familiar, to ask such questions & leave me under such an impression—‘mens conscia recti’ too!!–
And Mr Kenyon will not come until next Monday perhaps– How am I? But I am too well to be asked about. Is it not a warm summer? The weather is as ‘miraculous’ as the rest, I think– It is you who are unwell & make people uneasy, .. dearest– Say how you are, & promise me to do what is right & try to be better. The walking, the changing of the air, the leaving off Luria .. do what is right, I earnestly beseech you– The other day, I heard of Tennyson being ill again, .. too ill to write a simple note to his friend Mr Venables who told George. A little more than a year ago, it would have been no worse a thing to me to hear of your being ill than to hear of his being ill!– How the world has changed since then! To me, I mean.
Did I say that ever .. that “I knew you must be tired”—? And it was not even so true as that the coming event threw its shadow before?___________
I have begun on another sheet– I could not write here what was in my heart—yet I send you this paper besides to show how I was writing to you this morning. In the midst of it came a female friend of mine & broke the thread—the visible thread, that is.
And now, even now, at this safe eight oclock, I could not be safe from somebody, who, in her goodnature & my illfortune, must come & sit by me—& when my letter was come … “why would’nt I read it? What wonderful politeness on my part, she would not & could not consent to keep me from reading my letter—she would stand up by the fire rather.”
No, no, three times no. Brummel got into the carriage before the Regent, .. (didnt he?) but I persisted in not reading my letter in the presence of my friend. A notice on my punctiliousness may be put down tonight in her ‘private diary’. I kept the letter in my hand & only read it with those sapient ends of the fingers which the mesmerists make so much ado about, & which really did seem to touch a little of what was inside. Not all, however, happily for me!– Or my friend would have seen in my eyes what they did not see.
May God bless you!– Did I ever say that I had an objection to read the verses at six years old .. or see the drawings either? I am reasonable you observe!– Only, ‘Pauline’, I must have some day– Why not without the emendations? But if you insist on them, I will agree to wait a little .. if you promise at last to let me see the book which I will not show .. Some day, then! you shall not be vexed, nor hurried for the day—some day—— Am I not generous? And I, was ‘precocious’ too, & used to make rhymes over my bread & milk when I was nearly a baby .. only really it was mere echo-verse, that of mine, & had nothing of mark or of indication, such as I do not doubt that yours had. I used to write of virtue with a large ‘V,’& ‘Oh Muse’ with a harp, & things of that sort. At nine years old I wrote what I called ‘an epic’—& at ten various tragedies, French & English, which we used to act in the nursery– There was a French ‘hexameter’ tragedy on the subject of Regulus—but I cannot even smile to think of it now, there are so many grave memories .. which time has made grave .. hung around it. How I remember sitting in “my house under the sideboard,” in the diningroom, concocting one of the soliloquies beginning
“Qui suis je? autrefois un general Romain:
Maintenant esclave de Carthage je souffre en vain.”
Poor Regulus!– Cant you conceive how fine it must have been altogether? And these were my ‘maturer works,’ you are to understand, .. and “the moon was bright at ten oclock at night” years before. As to the gods & goddesses, I believed in them all quite seriously, & reconciled them to Christianity, which I believed in too after a fashion, as some greater philosophers have done .. & went out one day with my pinafore full of little sticks, (& a match from the housemaids cupboard) to sacrifice to the blue eyed Minerva who was my favorite goddess on the whole because she cared for Athens. As soon as I began to doubt about my goddesses, I fell into a vague sort of general scepticism, .. & though I went on saying “the Lord’s prayer” at nights & mornings, & the “Bless all my kind friends” afterwards, by the childish custom .. yet I ended this liturgy with a supplication which I found in ‘King’s memoirs’ & which took my fancy & met my general views exactly .. “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul”. Perhaps the theology of many thoughtful children is scarcely more orthodox than this: but indeed it is wonderful to myself sometimes how I came to escape, on the whole, as well as I have done, considering the commonplaces of education in which I was set, with strength & opportunity for breaking the bonds all round into liberty & license. Papa used to say .. “Dont read Gibbon’s history—it’s not a proper book– Dont read ‘Tom Jones’—& none of the books on this side, mind”– So I was very obedient & never touched the books on that side, & only read instead, Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, & Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, & Hume’s Essays, & Werther, & Rousseau, & Mary Woolstoncraft .. books, which I was never suspected of looking towards, & which were not “on that side” certainly, but which did as well.
How I am writing!– And what are the questions you did not answer? I shall remember them by the answers I suppose—but your letters always have a fulness to me & I never seem to wish for what is not in them.
But this is the end indeed.
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmarks: 1846 JA17 8Mg8 A; 10FN10 JA17 1846 A.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 103.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 390–393.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Date provided by postmark.
2. i.e., the unidentified friend mentioned in letter 2170.
3. “The consciousness of right” (cf. Æneid, I, 604, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough).
4. EBB’s brother George was a barrister of the Inner Temple, as was George Stovin Venables (1810–88). Venables had been at Cambridge with Tennyson and remained friendly with him throughout his life.
5. We have been unable to identify the friend mentioned here.
6. George Bryan Brummell (1778–1840), better known as Beau Brummell, was a noted bon vivant and wit. His friendship with the Prince of Wales, later George IV, was regarded as one of equals. We have been unable to trace the anecdote to which EBB refers.
7. “What am I? In the past a Roman general brave, / In Carthage’ hands today a vainly suffering slave.” These lines are published in Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories With an Inedited Autobiography, ed. H. Buxton Forman (2 vols., Boston, 1914). Regulus was a Roman general in the first Punic War who engineered a number of victories over the Carthaginians, before finally being defeated and captured. His captors sent him back to Rome with a proposal for an exchange of prisoners and his promise to return if the proposal was rejected. Due largely to his own recommendation, it was rejected, and so, honouring his promise, he returned to Carthage where he died at the hands of torturers about 251 B.C. (Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary).
8. “Sir William Wyndham told us, that the shortest prayer he had ever heard was the prayer of a common soldier just before the battle of Blenheim, ‘O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!’” as recounted in Political and Literary Anecdotes of His Own Times, by William King (1818), p. 8.