2223. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 97–100.
[23 February 1846]
Ever dearest, it is only when you go away, when you are quite gone, out of the house & the street, that I get up & think properly & with the right gratitude of your flowers– Such beautiful flowers you brought me this time too! looking like summer itself, & smelling!– Doing the ‘honour due’ to the flowers, makes your presence a little longer with me—the sun shines back over the hill just by that time, .. & then drops, till the next—letter’s oriency–
If I had had the letter on saturday as ought to have been, … no! I could not have answered it so that you should have my answer on sunday—no, I should still have had to write first ..
Now you understand that I do not object to the writing first, but only to the hearing second. I would rather write than not .. I! But to be written to is the chief gladness of course; & with all you say of liking to have my letters (which I like to hear quite enough indeed) you cannot pretend to think that yours are not more to me, most to me—ask my guardian-angel & hear what he says!– Yours will look another way for shame of measuring joys with him!– Because as I have said before, & as he says now, you are all to me .. all the light .. all the life—I am living for you now– And before I knew you, what was I & where? What was the world to me do you think? & the meaning of life? And now .. when you come & go, & write & do not write .. all the hours are chequered accordingly in so many squares of white & black, as if for playing at fox & goose .. only there is no fox, & I will not agree to be goose for one .. that is you perhaps, for being too easily satisfied.
So my claim is that you are more to me than I can be to you at any rate. Mr Fox said on sunday that I was a [‘]‘religious hermit” who wrote “poems which ought to be read in a gothic alcove”—and religious hermits when they care to see visions, do it better, they all say, through fasting & flagellation & seclusion in dark places. St Theresa, for instance, saw a clearer glory by such means, than your Sir Moses Montefiore through his hundred-guinea telescope. Think then, how every shadow of my life has helped to throw out into brighter, fuller significance, the light which comes to me from you .. think how it is the one light, seen without distractions–
I was thinking the other day that certainly & after all (or rather before all) I had loved you all my life unawares .. that is, the idea of you. Women begin for the most part, (if ever so very little given to reverie) by meaning, in an aside to themselves, to love such & such an ideal, seen sometimes in a dream & sometimes in a book .. & forswearing their ancient faith as the years creep on. I say a book .. because I remember a friend of mine who looked everywhere for the original of Mr Ward’s Tremaine, because nothing would do for her, she insisted, except just that excess of so-called refinement .. with the book knowledge & the conventional manners .. (‘loue qui peut,’ Tremaine,) & ended by marrying a lieutenant in the Navy who could not spell. Such things happen every day, & cannot be otherwise, say the wise:—& this being otherwise with me, is miraculous compensation for the trials of many years .. though such abundant, overabundant compensation, that I cannot help fearing it is too much .. as I know that you are too good & too high for me, & that by the degree in which I am raised up you are let down, for us two to find a level to meet on. One’s ideal must be above one, as a matter of course, you know. It is as far as one can reach with one’s eyes (soul-eyes) not reach to touch. And here is mine .. shall I tell you? .. even to the visible outward sign of the black hair & the complexion—(why you might ask my sisters!)—yet I would not tell you, if I could not tell you afterwards that, if it had been red hair quite, it had been the same thing .. only I prove the coincidence out fully & make you smile half–
Yet indeed I did not fancy that I was to love you when you came to see me—no indeed .. any more than I did your caring on your side. My ambition when we began our correspondence, was simply that you should forget I was a woman (being weary & blasée of the empty written gallantries, of which I have had my share & all the more perhaps from my peculiar position which made them so without consequence) that you should forget that & let us be friends, & consent to teach me what you knew better than I, in art & human nature, & give me your sympathy in the meanwhile. I am a great hero-worshipper & had admired your poetry for years, & to feel that you liked to write to me & be written to was a pleasure & a pride, as I used to tell you I am sure .. & then your letters were not like other letters .. as I must not tell you again. Also you influenced me, in a way in which no one else did. For instance, by two or three halfwords you made me see you, & other people had delivered orations on the same subject quite without effect. I surprised everybody in this house by consenting to see you– Then, when you came, .. you never went away– I mean, I had a sense of your presence constantly. Yes .. & to prove how free that feeling was from the remotest presentiment of what has occurred, … I said to Papa in my unconsciousness, the next morning .. ‘it is most extraordinary how the idea of Mr Browning does beset me—I suppose it is not being used to see strangers, in some degree—but it haunts me .. it is a persecution’. On which he smiled & said that “it was not grateful to my friend to use such a word”. When the letter came …
Do you know that all that time I was frightened of you? frightened in this way. I felt as if you had a power over me & meant to use it, & that I could not breathe or speak very differently from what you chose to make me. As to my thoughts I had it in my head somehow that you read them as you read the newspaper—examined them, & fastened them down writhing under your long entomological pins—ah, do you remember the entomology of it all?
But the power was used upon me—& I never doubted that you had mistaken your own mind, the strongest of us having some exceptional weakness– Turning the wonder round in all lights, I came to what you admitted yesterday .. yes, I saw that very early .. that you had come here with the intention of trying to love whomever you should find, .. & also that what I had said about exaggerating the amount of what I could be to you, had just operated in making you more determined to justify your own presentiment in the face of mine– Well—& if that last clause was true a little, too .. why should I be sorry now .. & why should you have fancied for a moment, that the first could make me sorry. At first & when I did not believe that you really loved me .. when I thought you deceived yourself .. then, it was different. But now .. now .. when I see & believe your attachment for me .. do you think that any cause in the world (except what diminished it) could render it less a source of joy to me?—I mean as far as I myself am considered– Now if you ever fancy that I am vain of your love for me .. you will be unjust, remember. If it were less dear, & less above me, I might be vain perhaps– But I may say before God & you, that of all the events of my life .. inclusive of its afflictions, .. nothing has humbled me so much as your love. Right or wrong it may be, but true it is .. & I tell you. Your love has been to me like God’s own love, which makes the receivers of it kneelers–
Why all this should be written, I do not know—but you set me thinking yesterday in that backward line, which I lean back to very often, .. & for once, as you made me write directly, why I wrote, as my thoughts went, that way.
Say how you are, beloved—& do not brood over that ‘soul’s tragedy’ which I wish I had here with Luria, because, so, you should not see it for a month at least– And take exercise & keep well—& remember how many letters I must have before saturday– May God bless you– Do you want to hear me say
I cannot love you less ..?
That is a doubtful phrase. And
I cannot love you more
is doubtful too, for reasons I could give– More or less, I really love you .. but it does not sound right, even so, .. does it? .. I know what it ought to be, & will put it into the ‘seal’ & the ‘paper’ with the ineffable other things.
Dearest do not go to St Petersburgh. Do not think of going, for fear it should come true & you should go: & while you were helping the Jews & teaching Nicholas, what, (in that case) would become
of your Ba?
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmark: PD 8NT FE24 1846 B.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 120.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 486–490.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Date provided by postmark and EBB’s reference to RB’s visit.
2. Cf. Romans 13:7.
3. “Fox and Geese” is a board game dating back to the Middle Ages. Cf. Aurora Leigh, IX, 153–154.
4. As explained in the preface to William Johnson Fox’s Lectures Addressed Chiefly to the Working Classes (4 vols., 1845–49), Fox had been speaking weekly on Sunday evenings since 1844 at the “National Hall of the Working Men’s Association” in Holborn (I, v). His lecture, entitled “On Living Poets; and Their Services to the Cause of Political Freedom and Human Progress—No. 10. Miss Barrett and Mrs. [Sarah Flower] Adams,” was first published in The People’s Journal for 7 March 1846 (pp. 130–136), and was later collected as Lecture IX in vol. IV of Fox’s Lectures. For the complete text of his remarks on EBB, see Appendix IV.
5. Moses Haim Montefiore (1784–1885) was a philanthropist who used his wealth to aid oppressed Jews throughout the world. He was knighted in 1837, the same year he served as Sheriff of London. When Czar Nicholas issued a ukase in 1844 requiring the removal of Jews to the interior of Russia, Montefiore intervened with the Russian ambassador resulting in its suspension. In Spring 1846, when it seemed likely that the ukase might be reissued, Montefiore decided to go to St. Petersburgh, where he obtained a private audience with the Czar, which resulted in the abrogation of the ukase. That same year Queen Victoria rewarded his humanitarian efforts with a baronetcy.
6. Tremaine, or the Man of Refinement, 3 vols., 1825, by Robert Plumer Ward (afterwards Plumer-Ward, 1765–1846). According to a notice of his death in The Times for 18 August 1846, he had “held office for twenty-five years under the governments of Mr. Pitt, Mr. Perceval, and Lord Liverpool, and retained to the last that vigorous intellect which has more recently identified his name with some of the master-pieces of English literature” (p. 7).
7. “Praise if you can.”
8. Cf. Sonnets from the Portuguese (1856), XLIII, 3.
9. See letter 1919.