2198.  RB to EBB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 44–46.


Friday. [Postmark: 6 February 1846]

If I said you “gave me pain” in anything, it was in the only way ever possible for you, my dearest—by giving yourself, in me, pain—being unjust to your own right and power as I feel them at my heart; and in that way, I see you will go on to the end .. I getting called—in this very letter—“generous” &c. Well,—let me fancy you see very, very deep into future chances and how I should behave on occasion: I shall hardly imitate you,—I whose sense of the present and its claims of gratitude, already is beyond expression.

All the kind explaining about the opium makes me happier, “slowly and gradually” what may not be done? Then see the bright weather while I write—lilacs, hawthorn, plum-trees all in bud,—elders in leaf, rose-bushes with great red shoots;—thrushes, whitethroats, hedge sparrows in full song—there can, let us hope, be nothing worse in store than a sharp wind, a week of it perhaps—and then comes what shall come–

And Miss Mitford yesterday—and has she fresh fears for you of my evil influence and Origenic power of “raying out darkness” like a swart star?[1] Why the common sense of the world teaches that there is nothing people at fault in any faculty of expression are so intolerant of as the like infirmity in others—whether they are inconscious of, or indulgent to their own obscurity and fettered Organ; the hindrance from the fettering of their neighbours’ is redoubled: a man may think he is not deaf, or, at least, that you need not be so much annoyed by his deafness as you profess—but he will be quite aware, to say the least of it, when another man can’t hear him; he will certainly not encourage him to stop his ears: and so with the converse,—a writer who fails to make himself understood, as presumably in my case, may either believe in his heart that it is not so .. that only as much attention and previous instructedness as the case calls for, would quite avail to understand him,—or he may open his eyes to the fact and be trying hard to overcome it:—but on which supposition is he led to confirm another in his unintelligibility? By the proverbial tenderness of the eye with the mote for the eye with the beam?[2] If that beam were just such another mote—then one might sympathize and feel no such inconvenience—but, because I have written a “Sordello”—do I turn to just its double, Sordello the second, in your books, and so perforce see nothing wrong? “No”—it is supposed—“but something as obscure in its way”—then down goes the bond of union at once, and I stand no nearer to view your work than the veriest proprietor of one thought and the two words that express it without obscurity at all—“bricks and mortar”.[3] Of course an artist’s whole problem must be, as Carlyle wrote to me, “the expressing with articulate clearness the thought in him”–[4] I am almost inclined to say that clear expression should be his only work and care—for he is born, ordained, such as he is—and not born learned in putting what was born in him into words .. what ever can be clearly spoken, ought to be: but “bricks and mortar” is very easily said—and some of the thoughts in “Sordello” not so readily even if Miss Mitford were to try her hand on them–

I look forward to a real life’s work for us both: I shall do all,—under your eyes and with your hand in mine,—all I was intended to do: may but you as surely go perfecting—by continuing—the work begun so wonderfully—“a rose-tree that beareth seven-times seven”–[5]

I am forced to dine in town to day with an old friend[6]—“to-morrow” always begins half the day before, like a Jewish sabbath: did your sister tell you that I met her on the stairs last time? She did not tell you that I had almost passed by her—the eyes being still elsewhere and occupied. Now let me write out that—no—I will send the old ballad I told you of,[7] for the strange coincidence—and it is very charming beside, is it not? Now goodbye, my sweetest, dearest—and tell me good news of yourself to-morrow, and be but half a quarter as glad to see me as I shall be blessed in seeing you. God bless you ever.

Your own RB

Address: Miss Barrett, / 50 Wimpole St.

Postmark: 8NT8 FE6 1846 B.

Docket, in EBB’s hand: 110.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 438–440.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Cf. Milton, “Lycidas” (1638), line 138. Miss Mitford disliked most of RB’s poetry. In an undated letter to Charles Boner, written in late October soon after the Brownings’ marriage, she remarked: “As a poet, I think him overrated. The few things of his which are clear seem to me as weak as water, & those on which his reputation rests, Paracelsus & The Bells and Pomegranates, are to me as so many riddles” (MS at Yale). It is not certain whether Miss Mitford ever made such a strong statement to EBB; see letter 1935, however, for her response to Miss Mitford’s earlier comments on RB’s poetry. Origen (ca. 185–254), one of the Fathers of the Church, wrote the first textual criticism of the Bible and many commentaries. These were later thought to shed darkness rather than light and were subsequently anathematized. “Raying out darkness,” is a reference to a passage from Forster’s review in The Examiner for 15 November 1845 (for the text, see vol. 11, p. 361).

2. The allusion is to Matthew 7:3.

3. Cf. Exodus 1:14.

4. In letter 822.

5. EBB, “The Lay of the Brown Rosary,” line 383.

6. Presumably Christopher Dowson, Jr., as reported by RB to Domett in letter 2261. He, along with Domett and RB, were members of a group known as “The Colloquials,” which met between 1835 and 1840 to discuss literary, philosophical, and artistic topics; for a more detailed account of this aspect of RB’s young adulthood, see John Maynard, Browning’s Youth (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), pp. 97–112.

7. There is no mention of such a ballad in previous letters, so it must have been something he told her during one of their meetings. However, see letter 2218 which confirms that RB did send, or take, the ballad to EBB; unfortunately, it is no longer with the letters, and we have been unable to trace its present whereabouts. In a letter to Frederick Furnivall, dated 15 April 1883 (MS at Huntington), RB explained that “The Flight of the Duchess” had grown “out of this one intelligible line of a song that I heard a woman singing at a bon-fire on Guy Faux night when I was a boy—‘Following the Queen of the Gypsies, O!’” DeVane suggests one of many variations of “The Gypsy Laddie” (p. 172), which is similar to what RB remembered, but the editors of the Oxford edition of RB’s Works point out that “The line ‘To follow along with my gypsies O!’, which is as close to what RB remembered as anything so far found, occurs in The Everlasting Circle, ed. James Reeves (1960), in his 61A, ‘The Gypsy Countess’, the source being a transcription made by Sabine Baring-Gould from the singing of an illiterate countryman in the late 1880s” (The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, ed. Ian Jack et al., Oxford, 1983–, 4, 98).


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