Wednesday, March 5, 2008

April is a Parthian with a dart

Elizabeth B. Barrett to Robert Browning

50 Wimpole Street: Feb. 27, 1845.

Yes, but, dear Mr. Browning, I want the spring according to the new 'style' (mine), and not the old one of you and the rest of the poets. To me unhappily, the snowdrop is much the same as the snow—it feels as cold underfoot—and I have grown sceptical about 'the voice of the turtle,' the east winds blow so loud. April is a Parthian with a dart, and May (at least the early part of it) a spy in the camp. That is my idea of what you call spring; mine, in the new style! A little later comes my spring; and indeed after such severe weather, from which I have just escaped with my life, I may thank it for coming at all. How happy you are, to be able to listen to the 'birds' without the commentary of the east wind, which, like other commentaries, spoils the music. And how happy I am to listen to you, when you write such kind open-hearted letters to me! I am delighted to hear all you say to me of yourself, and 'Luria,' and the spider, and to do him no dishonour in the association, of the great teacher of the age, Carlyle, who is also yours and mine. He fills the office of a poet—does he not?—by analysing humanity back into its elements, to the destruction of the conventions of the hour. That is—strictly speaking—the office of the poet, is it not?—and he discharges it fully, and with a wider intelligibility perhaps as far as the contemporary period is concerned, than if he did forthwith 'burst into a song.'
But how I do wander!—I meant to say, and I will call myself back to say, that spring will really come some day I hope and believe, and the warm settled weather with it, and that then I shall be probably fitter for certain pleasures than I can appear even to myself now.

And, in the meantime, I seem to see 'Luria' instead of you; I have visions and dream dreams. And the 'Soul's Tragedy,' which sounds to me like the step of a ghost of an old Drama! and you are not to think that I blaspheme the Drama, dear Mr. Browning; or that I ever thought of exhorting you to give up the 'solemn robes' and tread of the buskin. It is the theatre which vulgarises these things; the modern theatre in which we see no altar! where the thymelé is replaced by the caprice of a popular actor. And also, I have a fancy that your great dramatic power would work more clearly and audibly in the less definite mould—but you ride your own faculty as Oceanus did his sea-horse, 'directing it by your will'; and woe to the impertinence, which would dare to say 'turn this way' or 'turn from that way'—it should not be my impertinence. Do not think I blaspheme the Drama. I have gone through 'all such reading as should never be read' (that is, by women!), through my love of it on the contrary. And the dramatic faculty is strong in you—and therefore, as 'I speak unto a wise man, judge what I say.'

For myself and my own doings, you shall hear directly what I have been doing, and what I am about to do. Some years ago, as perhaps you may have heard, (but I hope not, for the fewer who hear of it the better)—some years ago, I translated or rather undid into English, the 'Prometheus' of Æschylus. To speak of this production moderately (not modestly), it is the most miserable of all miserable versions of the class. It was completed (in the first place) in thirteen days—the iambics thrown into blank verse, the lyrics into rhymed octosyllabics and the like,—and the whole together as cold as Caucasus, and as flat as the nearest plain. To account for this, the haste may be something; but if my mind had been properly awakened at the time, I might have made still more haste and done it better. Well,—the comfort is, that the little book was unadvertised and unknown, and that most of the copies (through my entreaty of my father) are shut up in the wardrobe of his bedroom. If ever I get well I shall show my joy by making a bonfire of them. In the meantime, the recollection of this sin of mine has been my nightmare and daymare too, and the sin has been the 'Blot on my escutcheon.' I could look in nobody's face, with a 'Thou canst not say I did it'—I know, I did it. And so I resolved to wash away the transgression, and translate the tragedy over again. It was an honest straightforward proof of repentance—was it not? and I have completed it, except the transcription and last polishing. If Æschylus stands at the foot of my bed now, I shall have a little breath to front him. I have done my duty by him, not indeed according to his claims, but in proportion to my faculty. Whether I shall ever publish or not (remember) remains to be considered—that is a different side of the subject. If I do, it may be in a magazine—or—but this is another ground. And then, I have in my head to associate with the version, a monodrama of my own,—not a long poem, but a monologue of Æschylus as he sate a blind exile on the flats of Sicily and recounted the past to his own soul, just before the eagle cracked his great massy skull with a stone.

But my chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem—a poem as completely modern as 'Geraldine's Courtship,' running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like, 'where angels fear to tread'; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive of it out plainly. That is my intention. It is not mature enough yet to be called a plan. I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment.

Who told me of your skulls and spiders? Why, couldn't I know it without being told? Did Cornelius Agrippa know nothing without being told? Mr. Horne never spoke it to my ears—(I never saw him face to face in my life, although we have corresponded for long and long), and he never wrote it to my eyes. Perhaps he does not know that I know it. Well, then! if I were to say that I heard it from you yourself, how would you answer? And it was so. Why, are you not aware that these are the days of mesmerism and clairvoyance? Are you an infidel? I have believed in your skulls for the last year, for my part.

And I have some sympathy in your habit of feeling for chairs and tables. I remember, when I was a child and wrote poems in little clasped books, I used to kiss the books and put them away tenderly because I had been happy near them, and take them out by turns when I was going from home, to cheer them by the change of air and the pleasure of the new place. This, not for the sake of the verses written in them, and not for the sake of writing more verses in them, but from pure gratitude. Other books I used to treat in a like manner—and to talk to the trees and the flowers, was a natural inclination—but between me and that time, the cypresses grow thick and dark.

Is it true that your wishes fulfil themselves? And when they do, are they not bitter to your taste—do you not wish them unfulfilled? Oh, this life, this life! There is comfort in it, they say, and I almost believe—but the brightest place in the house, is the leaning out of the window—at least, for me.

Of course you are self-conscious—How could you be a poet otherwise? Tell me.
Ever faithfully yours,

And was the little book written with Mr. Mill, pure metaphysics, or what?

-from the Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845-1846 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1900) vol. 1.

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