2211. RB to EBB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 73–76.
Sunday Afternoon. [15 February 1846]
Here is the letter again, dearest: I suppose it gives me the same pleasure, in reading, as you—and Mr K. as me, and anybody else as him; if all the correspondence which was claimed again and burnt on some principle or other some years ago, be at all of the nature of this sample, the measure seems questionable: burn anybody’s real letters, well & good—they move & live; the thoughts, feelings, & expressions even,—in a self-imposed circle limiting the experience of two persons only—there is the standard, and to that the appeal—how should a third person know? His presence breaks the line, so to speak, and lets in a whole tract of country on the originally inclosed spot—so that its trees, which were from side to side there, seem left alone and wondering at their sudden unimportance in the broad land,—while its “ferns such as I never saw before” and which have been petted proportionably, look extravagant enough amid the new spread of good honest grey grass that is now this earth’s general wear: so that the significance is lost at once, and whole value of such letters—the cypher changed, the vowel-points removed: but how can that affect clever writing like this? What do you, to whom it is addressed, see in it more than the world that wants to see it and shan’t have it? One understands shutting an unprivileged eye to the ineffable mysteries of those “upper-rooms,” now that the broom & dustpan, stocking-mending and gingerbread-making are invested with such unforseen reverence .. but the carriage-sweep and quarry, together with Jane and our baskets, and a pleasant shadow of Wordsworth’s sunday hat preceding his own rapid strides in the direction of Miss Fenwick’s house—surely, “mens eyes were made to see, so let them gaze”—at all this! And so I, gazing with a clear conscience, am very glad to hear so much good of a very good person and so well told: she plainly sees the proper use and advantage of a country-life; and that knowledge gets to seem a high point of attainment doubtless by the side of the Wordsworth she speaks of—for, mine he shall not be as long as I am able! Was ever such a “great” poet before? Put one trait with the other—the theory of rural innocence—alternation of “vulgar trifles” with disertating with style of “the utmost grandeur that even you can conceive” (speak for yourself Miss M.!—) and that amiable transition from two o’clock[’]s grief at the death of one’s brother to three o’clock’s happiness in the “extraordinary mesmeric discourse” of one’s friend– All this, and the rest of the serene & happy, inspired daily life which a piece of “unpunctuality” can ruin, and to which the guardian “angel” brings as crowning qualification the knack of poking the fire adroitly—of this—what can one say but that—no,—best hold one’s tongue and read the Lyrical Ballads with finger in ear: did not Shelley say long ago “He had no more imagination Than a pint-pot”—tho’ in those days he used to walk about France and Flanders like a man– Now, he is “most comfortable in his worldly affairs” and just this comes of it! He lives the best twenty years of his life after the way of his own heart—and when one presses in to see the result of the rare experiment .. what the one alchemist whom fortune has allowed to get all his coveted materials and set to work at last in earnest with fire and melting-pot,—what he produces after all the talk of him and the like of him,—why, you get pulvis et cinis—a man at the mercy of the tongs and shovel!
Well! Let us despair at nothing, but, wishing success to the newer aspirant, expect better things from Miss M. when the “knoll,” and “paradise,” and their facilities, operate properly,—and that she will make a truer estimate of the importance & responsibilities of “authorship” than she does at present, if I understand rightly the sense in which she describes her own life as it means to be—for in one sense it is all good and well—and quite natural that she should like “that sort of strenuous handwork” better than book-making,—like the play better than the labour, as we are apt to do: if she realizes a very ordinary scheme of literary life, planned under the eye of God not “the public,” and prosecuted under the constant sense of the night’s coming which ends it good or bad—then, she will be sure to “like” the rest and sport,—teaching her maids and sewing her gloves and making delicate visitors comfortable—so much more rational a resource is the worst of them than gin-and-water, for instance. But if, as I rather suspect, these latter are to figure as a virtual half duty of the whole man—as of equal importance (on the ground of the innocence and utility of such occupations) with the book-making aforesaid .. always supposing that to be of the right kind .. then I respect Miss M. just as I should an Archbishop of Canterbury whose business was the teaching A. B. C at an infant-school—he who might set on the Tens to instruct the Hundreds how to convince the Thousands of the propriety of doing that and many other things: of course one will respect him only the more if when that matter is off his mind he relaxes at such a school instead of over a chess-board; as it will increase our love for Miss M. to find that making “my good Jane (from Tynemouth)”—“happier and—I hope—wiser” is an amusement, or more, after the day’s progress toward the “novel for next year” which is to inspire thousands, beyond computation, with the ardour of making innumerable other Janes and delicate relatives happier & wiser—who knows but as many as Burns did, and does, so make happier and wiser? Only, his quarry and after-solace was that “marble bowl often replenished with whiskey” on which Dr Currie discourses mournfully– “Oh, be wiser Thou!”—and remember that it was only after Lord Bacon had written to an end his Book,—given us forever the Art of Inventing,—whether steam-engine or improved dust-pan,—that he took on himself to do a little exemplary “hand work,”—got out on that cold St Alban’s road to stuff a fowl with snow and so keep it fresh, and got into his bed and died of the cold in his hands (“strenuous hand work”—) before the snow had time to melt: he did not begin in his youth by saying—“I have a horror of merely writing Novum Organums, and shall give half my energies to the stuffing fowls”!
—All this it is my amusement, of an indifferent kind, to put down, solely on the pleasant assurance contained in that postscript, of the one way of never quarrelling with Miss M.—“by joining in her plan and practice of plain speaking”—could she but “get people to do it!”—Well, she gets me for a beginner: the funny thing would be to know what Chorley’s desperate utterance amounted to! Did you ever hear of the plain speaking of some of the continental lottery-projectors? An estate on the Rhine, for instance, is to be disposed of, and the holder of the lucky ticket will find himself suddenly owner of a mediæval castle with an unlimited number of dependencies,—vineyards, woods, pastures, and so forth—all only waiting the new master’s arrival—while inside, all is swept and garnished (not to say, varnished)—the tables are spread, the wines on the board, all is ready for the reception but .. here “plain speaking” becomes necessary—it prevents quarrels, and, could the projector get people to practice it as he does all would be well; so he, at least, will speak plainly– You hear what is provided but, he cannot, dares not with[h]old what is not—there is then, to speak plainly,—no nightcap! You will have to bring your own nightcap– The projector furnishes somewhat, as you hear, but not all—and now—the worst is heard,—will you quarrel with him? Will my own dear, dearest Ba please and help me here, and fancy Chorley’s concessions, and tributes, and recognitions, and then, at the very end, the “plain words”, to counterbalance all, that have been to overlook and pardon?
Oh, my own Ba, here my plain speech—and how this is not an attempt to frighten you out of your dear wish to “hear from me”—no, indeed—but a whim, a caprice,—and now it is out, over, done with! And now I am with you again—it is to you I shall write next. Bless you, ever—my beloved– I am much better, indeed—and mean to be well– And you! But I will write—this goes for nothing or only this, that I am your very
Address, on cover sheet: Miss Barrett, / 50. Wimpole St
Postmark: 10FN10 FE16 1846 C.
Docket, in EBB’s hand: 116.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 463–467.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Date provided by postmark.
2. An allusion to Harriet Martineau’s request to her friends to return or to burn her correspondence. As previously noted (letter 1476, note 4), in Life in the Sick-Room, Miss Martineau had expressed strong feelings about the publication of private letters.
3. RB is quoting from Miss Martineau’s letter (no. 2203).
4. Cf. Romeo and Juliet, III, 1, 54.
5. Cf. “Peter Bell the Third” (1839), IV, viii, 298–299.
6. “Dust and ashes.”
7. RB has interpolated this parenthetical passage between the lines.
8. RB refers here to The Works of Robert Burns; with an Account of His Life, 1800, ed. James Currie, I, 202–203. In describing the close of Robert Burns’s life, Currie attributed the poet’s decline in health and mind to alcohol: “In his moments of thought he reflected with the deepest regret on his fatal progress, clearly foreseeing the goal towards which he was hastening without the strength of mind necessary to stop, or even to slacken his course” (p. 220).
9. “The Art of Inquiry or Invention” is given by Bacon as one of four “Arts Intellectual” in The Advancement of Learning. The incident RB refers to occurred near Highgate in late March 1626. Bacon died shortly thereafter on 9 April (DNB).
10. Cf. Aurora Leigh, II, 1070–72.