3170.  RB to Joseph Milsand

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 18, 337–340.


Feb. 24. ’53.

It is far too many weeks now, my dear Milsand, since we got your letter—and certainly it has never once been out of sight any more than out of mind,—for I put it over the fire-place where we both sit, these long winter evenings, and often indeed a glance at it has brought you beside us again, as on those pleasant Paris evenings. We English have a superstition that when people talk of us, our ears burn—have we caused you any serious inconvenience that way?– You know, we three have long since past the stage in friendship when assurances of it are necessary to any one of us. For us two here, we gained nothing by our sojourn in Paris like the knowledge & love of you—& yet Paris gave us many valuable things. One day, in all probability we shall come together again—& meantime the news of you, tho’ never so slight, will be a delight to us. Yet your letter has been all this while unanswered—but one reason was, that only within this day or two have I been able to get the Revue with your article.[1] It is here on the table at last. In what is it “obscure”? Strong, condensed, and direct it is—and, no doubt, the common readers of easy writing feel as oppressed by twenty pages of such masculine stuff, as the habitual sippers of eau sucrée would at the proffer of a real consommé,—and as vanity suffers less in saying—“This is bad of its kind,” than “It is more than I can digest with comfort”—you hear more, I doubt not, of the former than the latter plea for passing you by. You must bear it, because you can. For me, it happens that the vice I hate most in what little English literature I now see, is the inveterate avoidance of simplicity and straightforwardness. If a man has a specific thing to say, little or great, he will not say it—he says something else, in altogether an alien tone to the real matter in hand, such as it is,—and though, thanks to the triviality and obviousness of the matter, you understand it readily enough by rebound, as it were—yet you are expected to get, along with, and over & above the matter itself, first, a pretty illustration of the same, and next, a notion of the writer’s being always above his subject, not so level with it, so impressed by it as to [be] wholly careless of aught but it—on the contrary, you see, he cares for the illustration as well. To give an example—in a novel, suppose the real intelligence to give is simply that “B replied to A”—you will have some such a phrase as—“B. proceeded to turn the enemy’s flank by observing so & so”– Of course, one might substitute scores of such parallels: the reader at present, while the mode of writing is not stale, goes on translating easily and almost without notice—but one day the trick will grow wearisome, and then, good-bye to the books that have used it! Just as with the old Euphuists who had their vogue in Queen Elizabeth’s day—who addressed a beautiful woman as “Your Beauty”—and so on. Well, the absence of anything in your own articles but the precise thing you wish to say there—makes them hard to read, if you please,—but not obscure in any way that I account obscurity. I have been reading Proudhon lately,—the “Confessions d’un révolutionnaire”—and think I remarked many of the inherent faults of his original views of human nature—you bring them out fully,—admirably—nor do I know that there is, so far as this article goes, one point where we break company—all I could even wish of you would be that ultimately,—after I accept as I do entirely your representation of human nature, with its inevitable inequalities of all sorts, you should agree to try and suit as well as we can the outward symbols & expressions of those inequalities to the real state of the case, and facilitate to the individuals composing your physician’s natural regiment of graduated capacities the disposal of each in his proper rank—that is all I want or hope for. It is ignorance to say there is not a born General, Colonel, Captain, Corporal, rank & file,—down to the suttler & camp-follower—and even an arbitrary and conventional bestowment of these grades,—as a reminder that they exist in nature,—is better than the ignoring them altogether—which is ruinous: but it is unjust and detrimental to double, and yet neutralise this natural inequality by pertinaciously putting the social badge of distinction on the wrong man: a humpback with a strong arm is terribly misfitted by his tailor if his coat comes to him with a sleeve in the back, and a protuberance under the shoulder. This seems very tame liberalism now-a-days, does it not? I cannot understand going a hair’s breadth beyond, however. Do you know Proudhon? He could not be in the least offended at your criticism. There, now, is a man absolutely free, so far as the intellect is concerned—he gives it full wing & free course: then, according to his own doctrine, it never errs: yet it is not infrequently that he tells you “I was bête[2] enough to think this—lâche[3] enough to believe the other”: how had it been, then, with a freedom of power commensurate to that of intelligence and will? What but bêtise & lâcheté[4] in action, and vehement action enough! And with a nation of emancipated Proudhons, whether combining or opposing each other’s bêtise & lâcheté, were the result so desirable?– But I won’t begin on this here—needing to close the letter already,—with so little said! My wife will write a few lines about ourselves. She is suffering a little from the cold,—which has come late,—nor very severely either—but enough to influence her more than I could wish. We live wholly alone here– I have not left the house one evening since our return. I am writing a sort of first step toward popularity (for me!)—“Lyrics,”[5] with more music & painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see .. something to follow, if I can compass it! Helen Faucit is going to produce an old play of mine, never acted, at the “Haymarket”—“Colombe’s Birthday”– Look out for it in April,—keeping in mind the proverbial uncertainty of things theatrical. My main hope of its success lies in the fact of its being wholly an actor’s and manager’s speculation—not the writer’s. I have a new acquaintance here much to my taste—Tennyson’s eldest Brother, who has long been settled here: with many of his brother’s qualities—a very earnest, simple & truthful man, with many admirable talents and acquirements, the whole “sicklied o’er”[6] by an inordinate dose of our English disease—“shyness.” He sees next to no company, but comes here, and we walk together. I must stop. I am glad you don’t drop Lady Elgin—for her sake & ours, who will meet you there. I knew too little of Mr Darley—will he keep the slender memory of me he may have? And do you, dear Milsand, ever know me for yours

most affectionately,

R Browning.

Address: M. Milsand / 33 Rue de l’Ouest.

Publication: Revue Germanique, July–September 1921, pp. 249–251 (in part).

Manuscript: Armstrong Browning Library, Joseph Milsand Archive.

1. “L’anti-christianisme de M. Proudhon” in the 15 December 1852 issue of Revue des Deux Mondes (pp. 1148–72), which focused on Proudhon’s La Révolution sociale démontrée per de coup d’état du 2 décembre (see letter 3141, note 4).

2. “Stupid.”

3. “Cowardly.”

4. “Stupidity & cowardice.”

5. See letter 3159, note 32.

6. Hamlet, III, 1, 84.


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