2234.  EBB to RB

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 117–121.


Sunday. [1 March 1846] [1]

You never could think that I meant any insinuation against you by a word of what was said yesterday, or that I sought or am likely to seek a “security” ..... do you know it was not right of you to use such an expression—indeed no– You were angry with me for just one minute, or you would not have used it—and why? Now what did I say that was wrong or unkind even by construction? If I did say anything, it was three times wrong, & unjust as well as unkind, & wronged my own heart & consciousness of all that you are to me,—more than it could, you. But you began speaking of yourself just as a woman might speak under the same circumstances .. you remember what you said .. & then I, remembering that all the men in the world would laugh such an idea to scorn, said something to that effect .. you know. I once was in company with a man, however, who valued himself very much on his constancy to a woman who was so deeply affected by it that she became his wife at last .. & the whole neighbourhood came out to stare at him on that ground as a sort of monster. And can you guess what the constancy meant? Seven years before, he loved that woman, he said, & she repulsed him .. “And in the meantime,—how many?,” I had the impertinence to ask a female friend who told me the tale– “Why,” she answered with the utmost simplicity, “I understand that Miss A & Miss B & Mrs C would not listen to him––but he took Miss D’s rejection most to heart.” That was the head & front of his “constancy” to Miss E, who had been loved she boasted, for seven years .. that is, once at the beginning & once at the end. It was just a coincidence of the “premier pas” & the “pis aller”. [2]

Beloved, I could not mean this for you—you are not made of such stuff, as we both know.

And for myself, it was my compromise with my own scruples, that you should not be “chained” to me .. not in the merest metaphor .. that you should not seem to be bound, in honour or otherwise, .. so that if you stayed with me it should be your free choice to stay, not the consequence of a choice so many months before– That was my compromise with my scruples .. & not my doubt of your affection .. & least of all, was it an intention of trifling with you sooner or later that made me wish to suspend all decisions as long as possible. I have decided (for me) to let it be as you shall please—now I told you that before– Either we will live on as we are .. until an obstacle arises .. for indeed I do not look for a “security” where you suppose .. & the very appearance of it there, is what most rebuts me; or I will be yours in the obvious way & go out of England the next half hour if possible– As to the steps to be taken (or not taken) before the last step, we must think of those– The worst is that the only question is about a form– Virtually the evil is the same all round, whatever we do– Dearest, it was plain to see yesterday evening when he came into this room for a moment at seven oclock, before going to his own to dress for dinner .. plain to see, that he was not altogether pleased at finding you here in the morning. [3] There was no pretext for objecting gravely—but it was plain that he was not pleased. Do not let this make you uncomfortable .. he will forget all about it .. & I was not scolded, do you understand– It was more manner:—but my sisters thought as I did of the significance:—& it was enough to prove to me (if I had not known) what a desperate game we should be playing if we depended on a yielding nerve there.

And today I went down stairs (to prove how my promises stand) though I could find at least ten good excuses for remaining in my own room .. for our cousin, Sam Barrett, [4] who brought the interruption yesterday & put me out of humour (it was’nt the fault of the dear little cousin, .. Lizzie .. my “Portrait” [5]  .. who was “so sorry”, she said,—dear child, .. to have missed Papa somewhere on the stairs!) the cousin who should have been in Brittainy yesterday instead of here, sate in the drawingroom all this morning, & had visitors there, .. & so I had excellent excuses for never moving from my chair– Yet, the field being clear at half past two, I went for half an hour .. just .. just for you– Did you think of me, I wonder? It was to meet your thoughts that I went, dear dearest.

How clever these sketches are. [6] The expression produced by such apparently inadequate means, is quite striking! & I have been making my brothers admire them, & they “wonder you dont think of employing them in an illustrated edition of your works.” Which might be, really!– Ah .. you did not ask for Luria!– Not that I should have let you have it!– [7] I think I should not indeed. Dearest, you take care of the head .. & dont make that tragedy of the soul one for mine, by letting it make you ill. Beware too of the showerbath—it plainly does not answer for you at this season. And walk, & think of me for your good .. if such a combination should be possible.

And I think of you .. if I do not of Italy. Yet I forget to speak to you of the Dulwich gallery. I never saw those pictures, but am astonished that the whole world should be wrong in praising them– “Divine” is a bad word for Murillo in any case—because he is intensely human in his most supernatural subjects. His beautiful Trinity in the National Gallery, [8] which I saw the last time I went out to look at pictures, has no deity in it—& I seem to see it now. And do you remember the visitation of the angels to Abraham (the Duke of Sutherland’s picture—is it not?) where the mystic visitors look like shepherds who had not even dreamt of God.? But I always understood that that Dulwich gallery was famous for great works: you surprise me! And for painters .. their badness is more ostentatious than that of poets—they stare idiocy out of the walls, & set the eyes of sensitive men on edge. For the rest, however, I very much doubt whether they wear their lives more to rags, than writers who mistake their vocation in poetry do– There is a mechanism in poetry as in the other art—&, to men, not native to the way of it, it runs hard & heavily– The “cudgelling of the brain” [9] is as good labour as the grinding of the colours, .. do you not think?

If ever I am in the Sistine chapel, it will not be with Mrs Jameson—no– If ever I should be there, what teaching I shall want, I who have seen so few pictures, & love them only as children do, with an unlearned love, just for the sake of the thoughts they bring– Wonderfully ignorant I am, to have had eyes & ears so long!. There is music, now, which lifts the hair on my head, I feel it so much, .. yet all I know of it as art, all I have heard of the works of the masters in it, has been the mere sign & suggestion, such as the private piano may give– I never heard an oratorio, for instance, in my life—judge by that! It is a guess, I make, at all the greatness & divinity .. feeling in it, though, distinctly & certainly, that a composer like Beethoven must stand above the divinest painter in soul-godhead, & nearest to the true poet, of all artists. And this I felt in my guess, long before I knew you—. But observe how, if I had died in this illness, I should have left a sealed world behind me! you, unknown too––unguessed at, you, in many respects! .. wonderfully unguessed at! Lately I have learnt to despise my own instincts. And apart from those—& you, .. it was right for me to be melancholy, in the consciousness of passing blindfolded under all the world-stars, & of going out into another side of the creation, with a blank for the experience of this .. the last revelation, unread! How the thought of it used to depress me sometimes!–

Talking of music, I had a proposition the other day from certain of Mr Russell’s (the singer’s) friends, about his setting to music my ‘Cry of the Children’. [10] His programme exhibits all the horrors of the world, I see!– Lifeboats .. madhouses .. gambler’s wives .. all done to the right sort of moaning– His audiences must go home delightfully miserable, I should fancy– He has set the ‘Song of the Shirt’ … & my ‘Cry of the Children’ will be acceptable, it is supposed, as a climax of agony. Do you know this Mr Russell, & what sort of music he suits to his melancholy?– But to turn my ‘Cry’ to a ‘Song’, a burden, it is said, is required—he cant sing it without a burden!—& behold what has been sent “for my approval” .. I shall copy it verbatim for you ..


“And the threads twirl, twirl, twirl,

Before each boy & girl;

And the wheels, big & little, still whirl, whirl, whirl.”

.. accompaniment, agitato, imitating the roar of the machinery!

This is not endurable .. ought not to be .. should it now? Do tell me.

May God bless you, very dearest!– Let me hear how you are—& think how I am your own .. 

Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.

Postmark: 10FN10 MR2 1846 A.

Docket, in RB’s hand: 123.

Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 502–505.

Manuscript: Wellesley College.

1. Date provided by postmark.

2. “First step” and “last resort.”

3. Actually, mid-afternoon. The visit lasted from 3 p.m. until 5:15 p.m., as indicated in the docket for letter 2229. EBB is using “morning” in the nineteenth-century sense of before dinner.

4. Samuel Goodin Barrett (1812–78).

5. “Lizzie,” Georgiana Elizabeth Barrett, was the subject of EBB’s poem “A Portrait”; she married EBB’s brother Alfred in 1855.

6. The same or similar “drawings” by RB’s father as mentioned in letters 2178 and 2185.

7. See the penultimate paragraph in letter 2223.

8. “The Two Trinities” (1681–82) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo had been acquired by the National Gallery in 1837. Describing Murillo’s “Abraham and the Angels,” in the Duke of Sutherland’s collection in Stafford House, Mrs. Jameson said that “Here the familiar style is out of place, and Murillo is comparatively poor” (Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London, 1844, p. 191).

9. Cf. Hamlet, V, 1, 56.

10. See the preceding letter for EBB’s comments to Miss Mitford concerning Henry Russell’s proposal to set “The Cry of the Children” to music. For RB’s response, see letter 2240.


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