2295. EBB to RB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 216–219.
Tuesday. [Postmark: 7 April 1846]
Dearest, it is not I who am a “flatterer”—and if I used the word first, it is because I had the right of it, I remember, long & long ago. There is the vainest of vanities in discussing the application of such a word .. & so, when you said the other day that you “never flattered” forsooth … (oh no!,) I would not contradict you for fear of the endless flattery it would lead to. Only that I do not choose (because such things are allowed to pass) to be called on my side “a flatterer”—I! That is too much, & too out of place. What do I ever say that is like flattery? I am allowed, it may be hoped, to admire the ‘Lurias’ & the rest, quite like other people, & even to say that I admire them .. may I not lawfully? If that is flattery, woe to me! I tell you the real truth, as I see the truth, even in respect to them .. the Lurias ..
For instance, did I flatter you & say that you were right yesterday? Indeed I thought you as wrong as possible .. wonderfully wrong on such a subject, for you .. who, only a day or two before, seemed so free from conventional fallacies .. so free! You would abolish the punishment of death too .. & put away wars, I am sure! But honorable men are bound to keep their honours clean at the expense of so much gunpowder & so much risk of life .. that must be, ought to be, .. let judicial deaths & military glory be abolished ever so! For my part, I set all Christian principle aside, (although if it were carried out .. & principle is nothing unless carried out .. it would not mean cowardice but magnanimity) but I set it aside & go on the bare social rational ground … and I do advisedly declare to you that I cannot conceive of any possible combination of circumstances which could .. I will not say .. justify, but even excuse, an honourable man’s having recourse to the duellist’s pistol, either on his own account or another’s. Not only, it seems to me horribly wrong .. but absurdly wrong, it seems to me. Also .. as a matter of pure reason .. the Parisian method of taking aim & blowing off a man’s head for the sins of his tongue, I do take to have a sort of judicial advantage over the Englishman’s six paces .. throwing the dice for his life or another man’s, because wounded by that man in his honour. His honour!– Who believes in such an honour .. liable to such amends, & capable of such recovery! You cannot, I think—in the secret of your mind. Or if you can .. you, who are a teacher of the world … poor world—it is more desperately wrong than I thought.
A man calls you “a liar” in an assembly of other men. Because he is a calumniator, &, on that very account, a worse man than you, .. you ask him to go down with you on the only ground on which you two are equals .. the duelling-ground, .. & with pistols of the same length, & friends numerically equal on each side, play at lives with him, both mortal men that you are. If it was proposed to you to play at real dice for the ratification or non-ratification of his calumny, the proposition would be laughed to scorn .. & yet the chance (as chance) seems much the same, .. & the death is an exterior circumstance which cannot be imagined to have much virtue. At best, what do you prove by your duel?—that your calumniator, though a calumniator, is not a coward in the vulgar sense .. & that yourself, though you may still be a liar ten times over, are not a coward either! “Here be proofs.”
And as to the custom of duelling preventing insults .. why you say that a man of honour should not go out with an unworthy adversary. Now supposing a man to be withheld from insult & calumny, just by the fear of being shot .. who is more unworthy than such a man? Therefore you conclude irrationally, illogically, that the system operates beyond the limit of its operations.– Oh! I shall write as quarrelsome letters as I choose. You are wrong, I know & feel, when you advocate the pitiful resources of this corrupt social life, .. & if you are wrong, how are we to get right, we all who look to you for teaching. Are you afraid too of being taken for a coward? or would you excuse that sort of fear .. that cowardice of cowardice, in other men? For me, I value your honour just as you do .. more than your life .. of the two things: but the madness of this foolishness is so clear to my eyes, than [sic, for that] instead of opening the door for you & keeping your secret, as that miserable woman did last year, for the man shot by her sister’s husband, I would just call in the police, though you were to throw me out of the window afterwards. So, with that beautiful vision of domestic felicity, (which Mrs Jameson would leap up to see!) I shall end my letter—is’nt it a letter worth thanking for?– Ever dearest, do you promise me that you never will be provoked into such an act—never? Mr O’Connell vowed it to himself, for a dead man .. & you may to me, for a living woman. Promises & vows may be foolish things for the most part .. but they cannot be more foolish than, in this case, the thing vowed against. So promise & vow. And I will “flatter” you in return in the lawful way .. for you will [‘]‘make me happy” .. so far! May God bless you, beloved! It is so wet & dreary today that I do not go down stairs– I sit instead in the gondola chair .. do you not see? .. & think of you .. do you not feel? I even love you .. if that were worth mentioning ..
being your own
How good of you to write so on sunday! to compare with my bad!–
Address: Robert Browning Esqre / New Cross / Hatcham / Surrey.
Postmark: 8NT8 AP7 1846 E.
Docket, in RB’s hand: 147.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 595–597.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. See letter 2229, note 5.
2. The Irish political leader, Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), had killed an opponent in a duel in 1815. In 1825, he responded to Robert Peel’s challenge to a duel, with an apology, for which he was widely charged with cowardice. He answered his accusers with the following remark: “He who feels conscious of having outraged the law of God ought to feel a pleasure in the avowal of his deep and lasting regret.” Despite EBB’s perception of this noble reply, it is interesting to note that sometime prior to the apology, O’Connell had accepted Peel’s challenge and was actually in transit to the continent for the express purpose of meeting him, when, at the direction of the under-secretary of state, he was arrested in London and heavily fined (DNB).