2298. RB to EBB
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 222–227.
Wednesday Mg [Postmark: 8 April 1846]
First of all, kiss me, dearest; and again—and now, with the left arm round you, I will write what I think in as few words as possible. I think the fault of not carrying out principles is yours, here: several principles would arrive at the result you desire—Christianity, Stoicism, Asceticism, Epicureanism (in the modern sense)—all these “carried out” stop the procedure you deprecate—but I fancy, as you state your principle, that it is an eclecticism from these & others; and presently one branch crosses its fellow, and we stop, arrive at nothing. Do you accept “life’s warm-beating joy & dole,” for an object of that life? Is “Society” a thing to desire to participate in, .. not by the one exceptional case out of the million, but by men generally,—men who “live” only for living’s sake, in the first instance,—next, men who, having ulterior objects & aims of happiness, yet derive various degrees of sustainment & comfort from the social life round them,—and so on, higher up, till you come to the half-dozen, for whom we need not be pressingly urgent to legislate just yet, having to attend to the world first. Well, is social life, a good, generally to these? If so,—go back to another principle which I suppose you to admit,—that “good” may be lawfully held, defended,—even to the death. Now see where the “cross” takes place. Something occurs which forces a man to hold this, defend this—he must do this, or renounce it. You let him do neither. Do not say he needs not renounce it,—we go avowedly on the vulgar broad ground of fact—you very well know it is a fact that by his refusing to accept a challenge, or send one, on conventionally sufficient ground, he will be infallibly excluded from a certain class of society thenceforth & forever. What society should do rather, is wholly out of the question—what will be done? And now, candidly, can you well fancy a more terrible wrong than this to the ordinary multitude of men? Alter the principles of your reasoning—say, Christianity forbids this,—and that will do—rational Simon renounces on his pillar more than the pleasures of society if so he may save his soul: say, Society is not worth living in,—it is no wrong to be forced to quit it—that will do, also; a man with “Paradise Lost” or “Othello” to write,—or with a Ba to live beside for his one companion,—or many other compensations,—he may retire to his own world easily: say, on the lowest possible ground, “out of society one eats, drinks &c excellently well,—what loss is there?”—all these principles avail,—but mix them—and they surely neutralize each other. A man may live, enjoy life, oppose an attempt to prevent his enjoying life,—yet not .. you see! “The method is irrational, proves nothing &c”—what is that to the question? Is the effect disputable or no? Wordsworth decides he had better go to court—then he must buy or borrow a court-dress. He goes because of the poetry in him. What irrationality in the bag and sword—in the grey duffil gown yonder, he wrote, half thro’ the exceeding ease and roominess of it, “the Excursion”,—how proper he should go in it, therefore .. beside it will wring his heartstrings to pay down the four-pounds, ten and sixpence: good, Mr Wordsworth! There’s no compulsion,—go back to the lakes and be entirely approved of by Miss Fenwick! .. but, if you do choose to kiss hands (instead of cheeks “smackingly”) why, you must even resolve to “grin and bear it” (a sea-phrase?)—and, Ba, your imaginary man, who is called “liar” before a large assembly, must decide for one or the other course. “He makes his antagonist double the wrong”. Nay—here the wrong begins—the poor author of the outrage should have known that his word was nothing—the sense of it, he and his like express abundantly every hour of the day, if they please, in language only a shade removed from this that causes all the harm,—and who does other than utterly, ineffably despise them? but he chooses, as the very phrase is, to oblige his adversary to act thus—he is nothing (I am going on your own case of a supposed futile cause of quarrel)—he may think just what he pleases—but having said this and so,—It is entirely society[’]s affair—and what is society’s present decision? Directly it relaxes a regulation, allows another outlet to the natural contempt for, and indifference to such men and their opinions spoken or unspoken; everybody avails himself of it directly. If the Lord Chamberlain issues an order this morning, “no swords need be worn at next levee”—who will appear with one? A politician is allowed to call his opponent a destructive &c—a critic may write that the author of such a book or such, is the poorest creature in the world—and who dreams of being angry? but society up to this time says, “if a man calls another &c & then he must”—will you renounce society? I, for one, could, easily: so therefore shall Mr Kenyon! Beside, I on purpose depreciate the value of an admission into society .. as if it were only for those who recognize no other value; and the wiser men might easily forego it: Not so easily! There are uses in it, great uses, for purposes quite beyond its limits—you pass thro’ it, mix with it, to get something by it: you do not go into the world to live on the breath of every fool there, but you reach something out of the world by being let go quietly, if not with a favourable welcome, among them. I leave here to go to Wimpole St—I want to have as little as possible to say to the people I find between—but, do you know, if I allow a foolish child to put the very smallest of fool’s caps on my head instead of the hat I usually wear, tho’ the comfort would be considerable in the change,—yet I shall be followed by an increasing crowd, say to Charing Cross, and thence pelted, perhaps, till I reach No. 50—there, perhaps to find the servant hesitate about opening the door to such an apparition,—and when Papa comes to hear how illustriously your visitor was attended thru’ the streets,—why he will specially set apart Easter monday to testify in person his sense of the sublime philosophy, will he not? My Ba. I tell the child on the first symptom of such a wish on his part “Don’t!” with all the eloquence in my power—if I can put it handsomely off my head, even, I will, and with pitying good nature—but if I must either wear the cap, and pay the penalty, or—slap his face, why—! “Ah,” you say, “but he has got a pistol that you don’t see and will shoot you dead like a foolish child as he is”– That he may! Have I to be told that in this world men, foolish or wicked, do inflict tremendous injuries on their unoffending fellows? Let God look to it, I say with reverence, and do you look to this point, where the injury is, begins: the foolish man who throws some disfiguring liquid in your face, which to remove you must have recourse to some dangerous surgical operation,—perilling himself, too, by the consequent vengeance of the law, if you sink under knife or cauterizing iron,—shall I say “the fault is yours—why submit to the operation?” The fault is his,—that constitutes the very fault—which begin by teaching him from his cradle in every possible shape! But don’t, don’t say—“the operation is unnecessary,—your blistered face will look, does look just as usual, not merely to me who know you, perhaps love you,—but to the whole world .. on whose opinion of its agreeableness, I confess that you are dependent for nearly every happy minute of your life–’[’] —In all this, I speak for the world, not for me– I have other, too many other sources of enjoyment– I could easily, I think, do what you require: I endeavour to care for others with none of these,—as dear, dearest Ba, sitting in her room because of a dull day, would have me take a few miles’ exercise. Has everybody a Ba? I had not last year—yet last year I had reasons, and still have, for, on occasion, renouncing society fifty times over: what I should do, therefore, is as improper to be held up for an example, as the exemplary behaviour of Walpole’s old French officer of ninety, who “hearing some youths diverting themselves with some girls in a tent close by, asked “Is this the example I set you, gentlemen?”– But I shall be dishonored however. Ba will “go and call the police”—why, so should I for your brother, in all but the extremest case!—because when I had told all the world, with whom the concern solely is, that, despite his uttermost endeavour, I had done this,—the world would be satisfied at once—and the whole procedure is meant to satisfy the world—even the foolishest know that the lion in a cage, thro’ no fault of his, cannot snap at a fly outside the bars. The thing to know is, will Ba dictate to her husband “a refusal to fight,” and then recommend him to go to a dinner-party? Say, “give up the dinner for my sake”, if you like—one or the other! it must be: you know, I hate and refuse dinner-parties. Does everybody?
But now in candour, hear me: I write all this to show the not such irrationality of the practise even on comparatively frivolous grounds .. and that those individuals to whom you once admit Society may be a legitimate enjoyment, must take such a course to retain the privileges they value—and that the painful consequences should be as unhesitatingly attributed to the first offence and its author,—as the explosion and horror to the fool who would put the match, in play perhaps, to the powder-barrel. And I excepted myself from the operation of this necessity. But I must confess that I can conceive of “combinations of circumstances” in which I see two things only .. or a Third: a miscreant to be put out the world, my own arm and best will to do it; and, perhaps, God to excuse,—which is, approve. My Ba, what is Evil, in its unmistakeable shape, but a thing to suppress at any price? I do approve of judicial punishment to death under some circumstances– I think we may, must say: “when it comes to that,—we will keep our pact of life, stand by God and put that out of us, our world—it shall not be endured, or we shall not be endured!” Dear Ba, is Life to become a child’s game? A is wronged, B rights him, and is a hero as we say,—B is wronged again, by C,—but he must not right himself,—that is D’s proper part, who again is to let E do the same kind office for him—and so on. “Defend the poor and fatherless”—and we all applaud—but if they could defend themselves, why not?– I will not fancy cases—here’s one that strikes me—a fact. Some soldiers were talking over a watch fire abroad—one said that once he was travelling in Scotland and knocked at a cottage-door—an old woman with one child let him in, gave him a supper and a bed—next morning he asked how they lived, and she said the cow, the milk of which he was then drinking, and the kale in the garden, such as he was eating—where [were] all her “mailien” or sustenance—whereon, rising to go, he, for the fun, “killed the cow and destroyed the kale”—“the old witch crying out she should certainly be starved”—then he went his way. “And she was starved, of course,” said a young man,—“do you rue it?”– The other laughed “Rue aught like that!”– The young man said, “I was the boy, and that was my mother—now then!”– In a minute or two the preparer of this “combination of circumstances” lay writhing with a sword thro’ him up to the hilt– “If you had rued it”—the youth said—“you should have answered it only to God!”–
More than enough of this—but I was anxious to stand clearer in your dear eyes—“vows and promises!”– I want to leave society for the Siren’s isle—and now, I often seriously reproach myself with conduct quite the reverse of what you would guard against: I have too much indifferentism to the opinions of Mr Smith & Mr Brown—by no means am anxious to have his notions agree with mine. Smith thinks Cromwell a canting villain; Brown believes no dissenter can be saved; and I repeat Goethe’s “Be it your unerring rule, ne’er to contradict a fool, for if folly choose to brave you, all your wisdom cannot save you!” And sometimes, I help out their arguments by a touch or two, after Ogniben’s fashion—it all seems so wearisomely unprofitable,—what comes of Smith’s second thought if you change his first—out of that second will branch as great an error, you may be sure! (11ock Here comes your letter![)] My own Ba! my dearest best, best beloved! I, angry! Oh, how you misinterpret, misunderstand the motions of my mind! In all that I said, or write here, I speak of others—others, if you please, of limited natures, I say why they may be excused .. that is all,—“You do not like pork”– But those poor Irish Cottier’s whose only luxury is bacon once a month,—you understand them liking it? I do not value society—others do—“we are all His children” says Euripides and quotes Paul.
Now, love, let this be a moot point to settle among the flowers one day—with Sir Thomas Browne’s other “hard questions yet not impossible to be solved!” (“What song the sirens sang to Ulysses,” is the first!)—in which blessed hope let me leave off,—for I confess to having written myself all but—tired, headachy .. But “vexed with you”! Ba, Ba,—you perplex me, bewilder me; let me get right again,—kiss me, dearest, and all is right. God bless you ever–
Address: Miss Barrett, / 50. Wimpole St
Postmark: 8NT8 AP8 1846 E.
Docket, in EBB’s hand: 149.
Publication: RB-EBB, pp. 601–606.
Manuscript: Wellesley College.
1. Cf. EBB, “Bertha in the Lane,” line 53.
2. St. Simeon Stylites (390–459), first of the pillar saints, lived the last twenty years of his life on top of a pillar 33 feet high. He spent his days praying and fasting, and instructing his followers to do the same.
3. RB is contrasting the length of The Excursion (1814), which is over 8900 lines in nine books, with the clothes Wordsworth had borrowed from Samuel Rogers to receive the laureateship from the Queen in 1843. Talfourd had told Haydon that the clothes were a poor fit: “It was a squeeze, but by pulling and hauling they got him in” (see letter 1896, note 6). The “grey duffil gown” is an allusion to Wordsworth’s “Alice Fell” (1807), the story of a girl whose tattered coat is replaced with one “of duffil grey” (line 57) by a kindly stranger.
4. RB is alluding to Harriet Martineau’s letter (no. 2203), which EBB had shared with him.
5. A proverbial expression used by sailors after a long spell of bad weather.
6. Placement of quotation marks is RB’s. We have been unable to trace this anecdote in Walpole.
7. A free translation from “Hikmet-Nameh; Buch der Sprüche” in Goethe’s West-oestlicher Divan (1819, p. 105). For a discussion of RB’s use of this epigram, see The Poems of Browning (1991–), ed. John Woolford and Daniel Karlin, 2, 453.
8. Cf. Acts 17:28. RB used part of this verse as an epigraph to “Cleon”; however, the line is from Aratus, not Euripides, see Phaenomena, line 5 (trans. G.R. Mair).
9. Cf. Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, chap. V, p. 71.