Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 4
Miss Mitford found Elizabeth Barrett better than she had dared to hope, yet still an utter invalid. Speaking of her appearance now as contrasted with what it was when she first met her, she says:—
She has totally lost the rich, bright colouring, which certainly made the greater part of her beauty. She is dark and pallid; the hair is almost entirely hidden; the look of youth gone (I think she now looks as much beyond her actual age as formerly she looked behind it), nothing remaining but the noble forehead, the matchless eyes, and the fine form of her mouth and teeth—even now their whiteness is healthy. . . .The expression, too, is completely changed; the sweetness remains, but it is accompanied with more shrewdness, more gaiety, the look not merely of the woman of genius—that she always had—but of the superlatively clever woman. An odd effect of absence from general society, that the talent for conversation should have ripened, and the shyness have disappeared—but so it is. When I first saw her, her talk, delightful as it was, had something too much of the lamp—she spoke too well—and her letters were rather too much like the very best books. Now all that is gone; the fine thoughts come gushing and sparkling like water from a spring, but flow as naturally as water down a hillside, clear, bright, and sparkling in the sunshine. All this, besides its great delightfulness, looks like life, does it not? Even in this weather—very trying to her—she has been translating some hymns of Gregory Nazianzen . . . and is talking of a series of articles for the Athenæum, comprising critiques on the Greek poets of the early Christian centuries, with poetical translations. I had rather she wrote more "Cloud Houses," and have told her so; and, above all, I had rather see a groat narrative poem, of an interest purely human (for one can't trust her with the mystical).
"The House of Clouds," alluded to by Miss Mitford, had appeared in the Athenæum of August 21st. It was alone sufficient to have made a poetic reputation; no poet ever penned a purer or more poetic piece, or one in which the music is wedded to the metre in more ethereal beauty. A sample stanza is sufficient to show what an artist in words Elizabeth Barrett could be at her best—
Faced with amber column
Crowned with crimson cupola,
From a sunset solemn!
May-mists, for the casements, fetch,
Pale and glimmering;
With a sunbeam hid in each,
And a smell of spring!
Who but will agree with Miss Mitford in her wish that a poet who could indite such lovely lines should continue so to write, instead of squandering her genius over the hopeless task of trying to resuscitate the dry bones of those irretrievably dead Greek Fathers of the Church. But what Elizabeth Barrett willed she did, and having made her mind up that the early Greek Christians kept the torch of Hellenic poesy from utterly fluttering out, she wrote a series of papers, and translated a lot of mouldering verse, to prove it to the public. These translations from, and articles on "The Greek Christian Poets," duly appeared in the Athenæum of the following year. They are now chiefly memorable and valuable for their author's sake, and as a specimen of her magnificent diction; the opening sentence of the first essay is a splendid example of the richness and verbal picturesqueness of English prose in competent hands.
In the preceding October, Miss Barrett had published in the Athenæum, to which she was a frequent contributor, some charming, characteristic lines, entitled, "Lessons from the Gorse," and in many ways displayed increased literary activity. With reviving health her energies appeared to revive; and although she suffered much during the short frost which ushered in the early winter of 1811, she recovered quickly. Her correspondence with literary people increased and, at rare intervals, friends were admitted into the darkened chamber in which she passed her time. She was, indeed, much better now that she had left behind the terrible, suggestive sound of the never-silent sea, and had regained the calm seclusion of home. She wrote continually, and read and studied unceasingly. Without these occupations for her mind, it has been suggested, she never could have lived. Her medical attendant did not comprehend this phase of her constitution, and remonstrated with her on her close application to her favourite Greek authors. To save herself from his diatribes she had a small edition of Plato bound up to resemble a novel.
Writing to Horne on the subject of her varied reading, Elizabeth Barrett says:—
So you think I never read Fonblanque or Sydney Smith—or Junius, perhaps? Mr. Kenyon calls me his "omnivorous cousin." I read without principle. I have a sort of unity, indeed, but it amalgamates instead of selecting—do you understand? When I had read the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to Malachi, right through, and was never stopped by the Chaldean—and the Greek poets, and Plato, right through from end to end—I passed as thoroughly through the flood of all possible and impossible British and foreign novels and romances, with slices of metaphysics laid thick between the sorrows of the multitudinous Celestinas. It is only useful knowledge and the multiplication table I have never tried hard at. And now—what now? Is this matter of exultation? Alas, no! Do I boast of my omnivorousness of reading, even apart from the romances? Certainly no! never, except in joke. It's against my theories and ratiocinations, which take upon themselves to assert that we all generally err by reading too much, and out of proportion to what we think. I should be wiser, I am persuaded, if I had not read half as much—should have had stronger and better exercised faculties, and should stand higher in my own appreciation. The fact is, that the ne plus ultra of intellectual indolence is this reading of books. It comes next to what the Americans call "whittling."
These wise and pregnant sentences are well worth reproduction and pondering over, although it must be confessed that Elizabeth Barrett, even if her reading were so varied as she humorously asserts, is an apparent exception to the theory she propounds. Her large range of reading continually supplies her with apt allusions and appropriate similes. Her letters, as Miss Mitford exclaims, "are such letters!"
Writing early in December 1841, that lady says she has just been reading a favourite book of Miss Barrett, lent her by that dear friend. It is Stilling's Theory of Pneumatology, and Miss Mitford faithfully describes it as "a most remarkable collection of ghost stories, dreams, &c., very interesting for its singular mixture of credulity, simplicity, shrewdness, and good faith." This letter contains the first intimation of Miss Barrett's leaning to a belief in apparitions, a belief which doubtless laid the foundation of her future credulity in matters connected with that modern imposture, Spiritualism.
Miss Mitford, in her voluminous correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett, continued to make remarks anent her spiritual theories. At first the elder lady appeared to somewhat sympathise with her friend's views; but as they became more pronounced, and credence was given to the more outré forms of modern superstition, Miss Mitford retreated from the field.
In the following February one learns that Miss Barrett is much better in health, and that she can even walk from the bed to the sofa, quite a grand deed for her. The report for the next month shows maintained improvement, and her friends are now quite hopeful for her. Her reading continues to be as varied and large as ever, and her letters to be filled with her clever comments upon what she reads. Her chief correspondent was Miss Mitford, who encouraged her to her utmost by praises of her great and growing powers. She writes—
My love and ambition for you often seems to be more like that of a mother for a son, or a father for a daughter (the two fondest of natural emotions), than the common bond of even a close friendship between two women of different ages and similar pursuits. I sit and think of you, and of the poems that you will write, and of that strange, brief rainbow crown called Fame, until the vision is before me as vividly as ever a mother's heart hailed the eloquence of a patriotic son. Do you understand this? And do you pardon it? You mus', my precious, for there is no chance that I should unbuild that house of clouds; and the position that I long to see you fill is higher, firmer, prouder than ever has been filled by a woman.
Great as was Miss Barrett's improvement, and well as she had borne the winter, we find that even by April she is unable to do more than move into the next room at the most, and that she is still unable to receive any new visitors. Her interchange of letters with Miss Mitford, however, becomes more incessant than ever, and from them one is enabled to learn what books the two ladies are reading, what their opinions upon them and upon the leading literary topics of the day are, and what each is doing as regards literature. As for Miss Barrett, little save literature seemed to her worth living for. Books, books, books, were almost the sole object of her life, and to read or write them her only occupation. Almost the only unliterary subject introduced is "Flush," a favourite spaniel presented to the poetess by Miss Mitford.
The year 1842 passed away quietly for Elizabeth Barrett. Her health's improvement—slow, very slow, if sure—was the chief and most important event for her. If she wrote much, she published little or nothing beyond a few poems, and "The Greek Christian Poets," already spoken of. But during this time she was steadily preparing a new collection of poetry, of priceless value, for the press. Writing to Horne at the end of December, she says, in her jesting way, "The world is better than I imagined, and since I wrote to you about booksellers, I have had an inkling of a reason for believing what I had not faith for previously, that in the case of my resolving to deliver up a volume of poems to my own former publisher, he would print it without being paid for it."
The first few months of 1843, like the last few of its predecessor, are almost a blank as far as any records of Miss Barrett's career are available. In April, Miss Mitford says she has a letter from her, "more cheerful and healthy than any I have received for a very long time." And on the 14th of June, the poetess sends a more than usually humorous letter to Horne, in reference to the distribution of his grand epic of Orion, published originally at the price of One Farthing. This nominal price, Horne says, was fixed in order to save the author the trouble and expense of sending copies to his numerous friends. Miss Barrett's first letter on the subject, which reads as if she were pretending to be piqued with the poet, shows that, after all, he did not escape either gratuitous distribution or literary correspondence in consequence. Certainly, if all his correspondents had possessed the epistolary talent of this one, he would have had nothing to regret at the failure of his plan. She writes:—
I have road and forwarded your letter to Miss Mitford, who tells me in a letter yesterday (a cross stitch) that, in spite of all I can say, she is glad of having written to you, because you "will be obliged to say something in your answer." Well! I also am glad that somebody is curious besides myself; and I am not sorry that the somebody should be herself, being jealous of her, "with Styx nine times round me," in natural proportion to her degree of glory and victory and twenty-five promised copies!
Very well, Mr. Horne!
"It is quite useless," said I to Miss Mitford, "that you should make your application! Have I not asked for six copies, and been refused?" Now carry the result of the application historically downwards—and me with it!
As to your suggestion about the compromise of her and my struggling heroically for these spolia opima—really you can know little of what heroes, female heroes, are made, to suggest such a thing! I have told Miss Mitford (to disabuse you at once) that not if she and you asked me on your four knees to touch a page of the twenty-five would I consent to such a thing. I make feminine oaths against it. I don't choose to do it. . . . Not in the least do I approve of your distributing the second edition in the manner of the first. The cause of it, and the object in it, are inscrutable to me, particularly as I don't hold to the common opinion that much poetry has made the author mad. Papa says, "Perhaps he is going to shoot the Queen, and is preparing evidence of monomania"—an ingenious conjecture, but not altogether satisfactory.
The letter from which these extracts are taken had not been written long before the writer began to fear that their humorous banter might be taken too seriously, so she indited another epistle about Orion, saying, "I am more sorry . . . at having written a very silly note to you. That it was simply silly—meaning that it wasn't seriously silly—I beg you to believe. I am apt to write, the thought or the jest as it may be, which is uppermost—and sometimes, too, when it is not uppermost. I struggle against a sadness which is strong, by putting a levity in the place of it. Now you will wonder what I have been writing if you have not received the note yet, and so I will explain to you that it was only some foolishness about the twenty-five copies—about Miss Mitford's victory and my defeat. κ. τ. λ."
The tone of this and other letters written by Elizabeth Barrett is explained by what she writes in a following communication to Horne. Referring to her great shyness in meeting strangers, she says, "But that you won't believe, because, as Mr. Kenyon says, I grow insolent when I have a pen in my hand, and you know me only 'by that sign.' I sometimes doubt to myself (do you know, besides) whether if I should ever be face to face with you, the shame and the shyness would not annihilate the pleasure of it to me!"
That this shyness was real, no student of Elizabeth Barrett's life and letters can doubt, and that that it was which ofttimes forced her into writing somewhat over-strained and bold epistles—so different to her retiring nature—just as very bashful people often blurt out more forcible and more courageous things than really brave but more self-possessed persons would dare to.
As the year advanced, and there were no signs of the invalid's falling back into her former sad condition, Miss Mitford, assisted by Mr. Kenyon, endeavoured to impress upon Mr. Barrett the advantages likely to accrue to his daughter by her being got out of town; but either he or the invalid herself feared the risk, and nothing was done. Her collection of poems, which it was arranged Moxon should publish, was rapidly approaching completion. It was to be in two volumes, and not to contain anything included in the previous, the 1838, collection. One important piece to be in this new work had appeared in Blackwood for August, under the title of "The Cry of the Children." It had been suggested by the Report of Horne on "The Employment of Children in Mines and Manufactories." He had been appointed by the Government an Assistant Commissioner to the Commission appointed to inquire into the subject, and his evidence, says Miss Barrett, excited her to write the poem named "The Cry of the Children." This poem, which Edgar Poe well characterised as "full of a nervous unflinching energy—a horror sublime in its simplicity—of which Dante himself might have been proud"—created quite a sensation on its appearance, and has been deemed, with much show of probability, to have hastened and helped the passing of the initial Act of Parliament restricting the employment of children of tender years. The poem is grand in its pathos and passion, in the simplicity of its suffering children, and the hardly restrained and lofty anger at their treatment. Some stanzas should be cited, if only to show what a lofty position their author had now achieved in the realms of poetry:—
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers'—
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;
The young birds are chirping in the nest;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
The young flowers are blowing towards the west—
But the young, young children, my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!—
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Why their tears are falling so?—
The old man may weep for his to-morrow,
Which is lost in Long Ago—
The old tree is leafless in the forest—
The old year is ending in the frost—
The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest—
The old hope is hardest to be lost:
But tho young, young children, my brothers,
Do you ask them why they stand
Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers
In our happy Fatherland?
Their wind comes in our faces,—
Till our hearts turn,—our heads with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places—
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling—
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall—
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling—
All are turning, all the day, and we with all!
And all day, the iron wheels are droning;
And sometimes we could pray:
'O ye wheels' (breaking out in a mad moaning),
'Stop! be silent for to-day!'"
That they look to Him and pray—
So the blessed One who blesseth all the others,
Will bless them another day.
They answer, "Who is God that He should hear us,
While the rushing of the iron wheels is stirred?
When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us
Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word!
And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)
Strangers speaking at the door;
Is it likely God, with angels singing round Him,
Hears our weeping any more?
And at midnight's hour of harm,—
'Our Father,' looking upward in the chamber,
We say softly for a charm.
We know no other words except 'Our Father,'
And we think that in some pause of angels' song
God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,
And hold both within His right hand which is strong.
'Our Father!' If He heard us, He would surely
(For they call him good and mild)
Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,
'Come and rest with me my child.'"
Another piece included in the collection, "To Flush, my Dog," is of a very different calibre, although replete with excellence in its way. "Flush," the many years canine companion and four-footed friend of the poetess, was a gift from Miss Mitford and, says Elizabeth Barrett, "belongs to the beautiful race she has rendered celebrated among English and American readers. The Flushes have their laurels as well as the Cæsars, the chief difference (at least the very head and front of it) consisting, according to my perception, in the bald head." If Miss Mitford made "Flush" celebrated by her prose, Miss Barrett immortalised it by her poesy. "Loving friend," she writes—
Who, her own true faith hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow creature!
Flow thy silken oars adown
Either side demurely,
Of thy silver-suited breast
Shining out from all the rest
Of thy body purely.
Till the sunshine, striking this,
Alchemise its dulness,—
When the sleek curls manifold
Flash all over into gold,
With a burnished fulness.
Startled eyes of hazel bland
Kindling, growing larger,—
Up thou loapest with a spring,
Full of prank and curvetting,
Leaping like a charger
Little is 't to such an end
That I praise thy rareness!
Other dogs may be thy peers
Haply in these drooping ears,
And this glossy fairness.
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary,—
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.
Tracked the hares and followed through
Sunny moor or meadow—
This dog only, crept and crept
Next a languid cheek that slept,
Sharing in the shadow.
And if one or two quick tears
Dropped upon his glossy ears,
Or a sigh came double,—
Up he sprang in eager haste,
Fawning, fondling, breathing fast,
In a tender trouble.
If a pale thin hand would glide
Down his dewlaps sloping,—
Which he pushed his nose within,
After,—platforming his chin
On the palm left open.
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favour!
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore, and for ever.
The allusion to the "other dogs in thymy dew" who "tracked the hare," is suggested by an incident told the poetess by Miss Mitford in one of her chatty letters. This lady's spaniel, the sire of the second "Flush" does not appear to have been, at all times, so sedate as his daughter. One evening, when his mistress was taking her wonted walk, the one daily walk which she said kept her alive, her Flush found a hare and quested it for two miles. She says—
I heard him the whole time, and could follow by the ear every step that they took, and called in desperate fear lest some keeper should kill my pet. To be sure, as Ben (her servant) and my father said when I returned and told my fright, "Flush is too well known for that." But you can comprehend my alarm at finding that the more I called, the more Flushie would not come; whilst he was making the welkin ring with a tongue unrivalled amongst all spaniels that ever followed game. Instead of pitying me, both my father and Ben were charmed at the adventure. The most provoking part of it was that when, after following the hare to a copse on the other side of the avenue, he had at length come back to me, he actually, upon crossing the scent again, as we were returning homeward, retraced his steps and followed the game back to cover again. This, which was the most trying circumstance of all to me, was exactly what, as proving the fineness of his nose, Ben and his master gloried in. Indeed, Ben caught him up in his arms, and declared that he would back him against any spaniel in England for all that he was worth in the world. So, I suppose, to-morrow he'll run away again.
In further proof of the value of the Flush family, Miss Mitford, on another occasion, recounts how a half sister of Miss Barrett's Flush "is so much admired in Reading that she has already been stolen four times—a tribute to her merit which might be dispensed with—and her master, having upon every occasion offered ten pounds reward, it seems likely enough that she will be stolen four times more."
The dog-stealers were also the bane of Miss Barrett. Writing to Horne in October of this year, she says:—
Yes, I have recovered my pet. No, I have "idealised" none of the dog-stealing. I had no time. I was crying while he was away, and I was accused so loudly of "silliness and childishness" afterwards, that I was glad to dry my eyes, and forget my misfortunes by way of rescuing my reputation. After all, it was excusable that I cried. Flushie is my friend, my companion, and loves me better than he loves the sunshine without. Oh, and if you had seen him when he came home and threw himself into my arms, palpitating with joy, in that dumb inarticulate ecstasy which is so affecting—love without speech! "You had better give your dog something to eat," said the thief to my brother when he yielded up his prize for a bribe, "for he has tasted nothing since he has been with us." And he had been with them for three days, and yet his heart was so full when he came home that he could not eat, but shrank away from the plate and laid down his head on my shoulder. The spirit of love conquered the animal appetite even in that dog. He is worth loving. Is he not?
In the letter containing the foregoing account of Flushie's return home from his unlawful detention, his fond mistress had placed a very neat and characteristic pen-and-ink portrait of little Flush, humorously made to resemble herself. This sketch was jocularly sent in lieu of her own portrait, which Horne had solicited for insertion in his forthcoming work, A New Spirit of the Age, and was introduced by these words: "Here I send you one of the 'Spirits of the Age,' strongly recommending it to a place on your frontispiece. It is Flush's portrait, I need scarcely say; and only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted." Later on, she writes: "Mr. Kenyon was with me yesterday, and praised Orion most admiringly. He accused me of the Athenæum paper, and convicted me against my will; and when I could no longer deny, and began to explain and 'pique myself upon my diplomacy,' he threw himself back into his chair and laughed me to scorn as the least diplomatic of his acquaintance. 'You diplomatic!'"
In her correspondence with Horne generally the topics discussed were literary, and frequently referred, to projects in which one or both were co-operating. The following letter from her, dated August 31st, is, however, more relative to her personal affairs than usual:—
Ah, my dear Mr. Horne, while you are praising the weather—stroking the sleek sunshine—it has been, not exactly killing me, but striking me vigorously with intent to kill. It was intensely hot, and I went out in the chair, and was over excited and over tired, I suppose; at least, the next day I was ill, shivering in the sun, and lapsing into a weariness it is not easy for me to rally from. Yet everybody has been ill, which—in the way of pure benevolence—ought to be a comfort to me; and now I am well again. And the weather is certainly lovely and bright by fits, and I join you in praising the beauty and glory of it; but then, you must admit that the fits, the spasmodic changes of the temperature from sixty-one degrees to eighty-one, and back again, are trying to mortal frames, more especially to those conscious of the frailty of the "native mud," in them. If I had the wings of a dove, and could flee away to the South of France, I should be cooing, peradventure, instead of moaning. Only I could not leave everything, even then! I must stay, as well as go, under any circumstances, dove or woman.
By the way, two of my brothers are on the Rhine at this moment. They have gone, to my pain and pleasure, to see Geneva, and come home at the end of six weeks, by Paris, to re-plunge (one of them) into law.
It pleases me to think of dear Miss Mitford reading my "House of Clouds" to you, with her "melodious feeling" for poetry, and the sweeter melody of her kindliness; and it moreover pleased mo to know that you liked it in any measure. Mr. Boyd told me that "He had read my papers on the Greek Fathers with the more satisfaction because ho had inferred from my 'House of Clouds' that illness had impaired my faculties." Ah! but I hope to do something yet, better than the past. I hope, and shall struggle to it.
I have had a great pleasure lately in some correspondence with Miss Martineau, the noblest female intelligence between the seas, "as sweet as spring, as ocean deep." She is in a hopeless anguish of body, and serene triumph of spirit, with at once no hope and all hope! To hear from her was both a pleasure and honour for me.
It is a gratification to know that this high appreciation of one great-souled woman for another—another, too, in many things so different!—was fully reciprocated, and that shortly after the opinion just cited was given, Harriet Martineau told Edward Moxon she deemed "Miss Barrett the woman of women," and that there was nothing to be likened to her recent two volumes of poems.
Not long after the publication of Chaucer Modernized, in which he was greatly assisted by our poetess, Horne projected a work to be entitled A New Spirit of the Age. The title, if not the theme, was suggested, by Hazlitt's well-known work, and, like that, it was to be a work of criticism, but literary criticism only. "As in the case of Chaucer," says Horne, "the work was to be edited and partly written by myself, and the principal and most valuable of my coadjutors was Miss Barrett. The critique entitled "William Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt," he proceeds to tell us, "was written in about equal proportions by Miss Barrett and myself." This was done at first in separate manuscripts, and then each interpolated the work of the other "as the spirit moved." It was written in letters, and some of them of considerable length.
"I believe I am making public for the first time," says Horne, "the fact that the mottoes, which are singularly happy and appropriate, were for the most part supplied by Miss Barrett and Robert Browning, then unknown to each other."
The article on the merits of "Walter Savage Landor," Horne is our authority for saying, was mainly the work of Miss Barrett. "It was forwarded in two letters, which were carefully transcribed. What she had done was preceded by a few biographical and other remarks, founded upon communications forwarded to me by Mr. Landor." That Miss Barrett's observations on Landor are noteworthy needs no confirmation; but that a portion, at least, of the autobiographical information in the article—such as the marvellous anecdote of its hero's connection with the First Napoleon, related by the man himself as an instance of his "great hatred and yet greater forbearance"—was palpably evolved from pure imagination, is self-evident.
The classicism of Walter Savage Landor's style was calculated to inspire Miss Barrett with admiration for his undeniable genius, and, perhaps, to some extent, to blind her to his many eccentricities. Her critique on his writings, and the cause of their slow growth into popular favour, is not only a valuable example of her marvellous clear insight into the real nature of such things, but is a wonderful specimen of her terse and trenchant prose.
The following lines written to Horne by Miss Barrett during the progress of his New Spirit, and with reference to it, are very interesting as proving, what our readers may have already discovered, that there was a light and humorous side to her personality:—
You will conclude, from certain facts, that I am very like a broom!—not Lord Brougham, who only does a little of everything; and not a wheeled brougham, which will stop when it is bidden; and not a new broom, which swoops clean and then has done with it; but that bewitched broom in the story, which, being sent to draw water, drew bucket after bucket, until the whole house was in a flood. Montaigne says somewhere that to stop gracefully is a sure proof of high race in a horse. I wonder what not to stop at all is proof of—in horse, man, or woman? After all, I am not improving my case by this additional loquacity; and the case is bad enough . . . You asked me to write four or five pages for your work, and I have written what you see! . . . Indeed, I did not mean to write so much—I didn't think of writing your whole book for you!
Miss Barrett's correspondence with Horne, ranges rapidly from grave to gay in its treatment of literary and other themes, during the latter months of 1843 and the first quarter of 1844. Her letters, furnish almost the only knowledge we have of their writer's existence during the period named, and are chiefly due to her co-operation in the New Spirit of the Age. As an embodiment of Miss Barrett's untrammelled and real opinion of her contemporaries they are replete with interest; frequently with a few vitalizing words furnishing a more vivid portrait of a celebrity or notoriety of the day than an ordinary bookmaker will in a volume. She possessed power of insight that enabled her to penetrate through the mere action of individuals and behold clearly their motives. With no one, apparently, was she on more friendly terms than with Miss Mitford, and yet frequently does she give proof that she refrains from showing her heart to that amiable but extremely indiscreet lady, as, also, that she comprehended thoroughly the limited range of that correspondent's literary qualifications. Nevertheless, Miss Barrett fought nobly on behalf of Miss Mitford whenever she had the opportunity. It would be difficult to cull from any man's essay, however much an experienced literary man of the world he might be, a clearer, more condensed, and more impartially worded critique on a fellow author than one on Miss Mitford by Elizabeth Barrett, sent to the editor of The New Spirit of the Age.
In the course of their correspondence anent the various personages to be introduced in the projected work Horne had desired his fair contributor to write on one side only of her paper and to leave wide margins to her manuscript, in order, evidently, to permit of his alterations and annotations. She replied: "Very well! I will be good as I am fair—i.e. by courtesy. And I will be very courteous to your right honourable printers, who can't be at the trouble to turn over a leaf or read from anything except large paper, and an inch of margin on each side! Very well, they shall have their will—although, to be sure, I have been in the habit of writing for the press on the ordinary long note paper, and on both sides the page, and never heard a printer's murmur."
In her postscript she says, "'How I do go on in the dark!' To be sure I do. The dark, you know, is my particular province—even without the political economy. That would have made me a Princess of Darkness."
Miss Barrett's allusion to the darkness will be more readily comprehended, when it is known that after the return to London she lived in a large darkened chamber whence, for some years, she never went further than the bed-room adjoining. She makes frequent allusions to this solitary confinement in her poems and, occasionally, in her correspondence, as in the following letter to a fellow poet:—
I am thinking—lifting up my pen—what I can write which is likely to be interesting to you. After all I come to chaos and silence, and even old Night, it is growing so dark. I live in London, to be sure, and except for the glory of it, I might live in a desert—so profound is my solitude, and so complete my isolation from things and persons without. I lie all day, and day after day, on this sofa, and my windows do not even look into the street. To abuse myself with a vain deceit of rural life, I have had ivy planted in a box—and it has flourished and spread over one window, and strikes against the glass, with a little stroke from the thicker leaves, when the wind blows at all briskly. Then I think of forests and groves . . . It is my triumph, when the leaves strike the window pane. And this is not to sound like a lament. Books and thoughts and dreams (too consciously dreamed, however, for me—the illusion of them has almost passed) and domestic tenderness can and ought to leave nobody lamenting.
To Horne—in reply to his request that she would furnish him with some biographical particulars of herself, for use in his article on her in the New Spirit of the Age—she says:—
So you think that I am in the habit of keeping biographical sketches in my table drawer for the use of hypothetical editors?
Once, indeed, for one year, I kept a diary in detail and largely; and at the end of the twelve months was in such a crisis of self-disgust that there was nothing for me but to leave off the diary. Did you ever try the effect of a diary upon your own mind? It is curious, especially where elastic spirits and fancies are at work upon a fixity of character and situation. . . .
My dear Mr. Horne, the public do not care for me enough to care at all for my biography. If you say anything of me (and I am not affected enough to pretend to wish you to be absolutely silent, if you see any occasion to speak), it must be as a writer of rhymes, and not as the heroine of a biography: you must not allow your kindness for me to place me in a prominency which I have to deserve—and do not yet deserve. And then as to stories, my story amounts to the knife-grinder's, with nothing at all for a catastrophe. A bird in a cage could have as good a story. Most of my events, and nearly all my intense pleasures, have passed in thoughts.
"For the rest," she adds, "you see that there is nothing to say: it is a blank"; and, considering that up to this time, how little she had done to startle the world, that how few even of her better poems were before it, it must be confessed that Horne's request for particulars of her life seems to have been rather premature. Still she could not dismiss the idea from her mind, and resuming the subject, says, "Yet I could write an autobiography, but not now, and not for an indifferent public; of whom, by the way, I never did and do not complain, seeing that they received my 'Seraphim' with some kindness, and that everything published previously by me I reject myself, and cast upon the ground as unworthy. The 'Seraphim' has faults enough—and weaknesses, besides—but my voice is in it, in its individual tones, and not inarticulately."
Miss Barrett's projected paper on "Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt" for A New Spirit, aroused a controversy between the editor and contributor: they were fully agreed as to the treatment of Wordsworth, but over Leigh Hunt held a somewhat excited discussion. Hunt's theological ideas did not come up to the standard of Miss Barrett's faith, but, upon the assurance of Horne that the man was really "a religious man," only not quite orthodox, she relented towards him, adding to her remarks upon the tone of his poetry—"May I say of myself that I hope there is nobody in the world with a stronger will and aspiration to escape from sectarianism in any sort or sense, when I have eyes to discern it, and that the sectarianism of the National Churches, to which I do not belong, and of the Dissenting bodies, to which I do—stand together before me on a pretty just level of detestation."
In a subsequent note, referring to the projected paper on herself, after protesting that she will be neither surprised nor disconcerted if the remarks are not of the pleasantest, she says:—"For the rest, or rather under the whole, if I myself am not tame about the 'Seraphim,' it is because I am the person interested. I wonder to myself sometimes, in a climax of dissatisfaction, how I came to publish it. It is a failure, in my own eyes; and if it were not for the poems of less pretension in its company, would have fallen, both probably and deservedly, a dead weight from the press."
In a further epistle, dated in December, she confesses curiosity to know whom it is Mr. Horne now, with some mystery, is wishing her to write on. "Not Dr. Pusey!" she exclaims. "Thank you for the 'not.' And not a political economist, I hope—not a mathematician, nor a man of science—such a one as Babbage, for instance, to undo me." "I am a little beset with business just now," she continues, "being on the verge of getting another volume into print—with one or two long poems struggling for completion at my hands, in order to a subsequent falling upon the printer's."
Later letters continue to discuss the merits and demerits of various authors omitted from, or commented upon, in A New Spirit of the Age. Several female contemporary writers are passed in review, and then the novelists come under notice. Here, as everywhere, Miss Barrett does not hesitate to express her own opinions, although they may differ widely from her editor's. "It appears to me," she remarks, "that you cultivate scorn for the novel-readers, or else have no comprehension for them, dividing them into classes of Godwin-readers, Fielding-readers, Richardson-readers, James-readers, and so forth. You have no sympathy for persons who, when they were children, beset everybody in the house, from the proprietor to the second housemaid, to 'tell them a story,' and retain so much of their childhood—green as grass—as that love of stories."
Oh, that love for story-telling! It may be foolish, to be sure; it leads one into waste of time and strong excitements, to be sure; still, how pleasant it is! How full of enchantment and dream-time gladnesses! What a pleasant accompaniment to one's lonely coffee-cup in the morning or evening, to hold a little volume in the left hand and read softly along how Lindoro saw Monimia over the hedge, and what he said to her! After breakfast we have other matters to do—grave "business matters," poems to write upon Eden, or essays on Carlyle, or literature in various shapes to be employed seriously on. But everybody must attend to a certain proportion of practical affairs of life, and Lindoro and Monimia bring us ours. And then, if Monimia behaves pretty well, what rational satisfaction we have in settling her at the end of the book. No woman who speculates and practises "on her own account" has half the satisfaction in securing an establishment that we have with our Monimias, nor should have, let it be said boldly. Did we not divine it would end so—albeit, ourselves and Monimia were weeping together at the end of the second volume? Even to the middle of the third, when Lindoro was sworn at for a traitor by everybody in the book, may it not be testified gloriously of us that we saw through him, and relied implicitly upon an exculpating fidelity which should be "in" at the finis, to glorify him finally? What, have you known nothing, Mr. Editor, of these exaltations? Indeed your note looks like it.
The correspondence with Horne, in respect to matters connected with the New Spirit, ran on into the new year. One note in January contained some very appropriate and truthful words on Byron, one of Elizabeth Barrett's childish idols, to whom, with her usual unswerving tenacity, she held true in her maturity. "Horne!" she exclaims, "do you, too, call Byron vindictive? I do not. If he turned upon the dart, it was by the instinct of passion, not by the theory of vengeance, I believe and am assured. Poor, poor Lord Byron! Now would I lay the sun and moon against a tennis-ball that he had more tenderness in one section of his heart than * * * * has in all hers, though a tenderness misunderstood and crushed, ignorantly, profanely, and vilely, by false friends and a pattern wife. His blood is on our heads—on us in England."
Many contemporaries included in or suggested for A New Spirit of the Age are criticised by Miss Barrett with that independence of expression, that vigour—absurdly styled "masculine vigour"—of thought; but enough has been said to prove that her mastery of language was not confined to poesy only, and that her thoughts could be told as fluently, yet as condensedly, in prose. With some few words from her letters on Horne's paper about herself, a paper of which she saw nothing until it appeared in print, we can take leave of A New Spirit of the Age. To write about herself was, as Horne points out, a nice and delicate thing, but, as he adds, "she gets through it with the ease of any truthful person who believes in the truthfulness of another."
It has been haunting me all this morning that you may be drawing the very last inference I should wish you to draw from my silence. But I have been so unwell that I could not even read, and the writing has been impossible, and people cry out even now, "Why, surely you are not going to write!"
I must write. It is on my mind and must be off it.
First to thank you for the books, which it was such unnecessary kindness for you to send—and then for the abundant kindness in another way which will, at the earliest thought, occur to you. My only objection to the paper is, that the personal kindness is too evident. My objection, you will see, leaves me full of gratitude to you, and fills to the brim that Venetian goblet of former obligations, which never held any poison.You are guilty of certain exaggerations, however, in speaking of me, against which I shall oppose my dele as you allow me. For instance, I have not been shut up in one room for six or seven years—four or five would be nearer; and then, except on one occasion, I have not been for "several weeks together in the dark" during the course of them. And then there is not a single "elegant Latin verse" extant from my hand. I never cultivated Latin verses. . . .
There is nothing to alter—that is, nothing to add—in relation to myself; but there are some inaccuracies, as I have explained to you.
In a later letter Miss Barrett returns to the subject of Horne's paper on herself, saying—
Bear in your mind, then, with regard to me, that I thoroughly understand the fulness both of your kindness and your integrity. You are my friend, I hope, but you do not on that account lose the faculty of judging me, or the right of judging me frankly. I do loathe the whole system of personal compliment as a consequence of a personal interest, and I beseech you not to suffer yourself ever by any sort of kind impulse from within, or extraneous influence otherwise, to say or modify a word relating to me. The notice as it stands can be called "inadequate" only in one way—that you enter on no analysis of my poetical claims in it. In every other respect you know it is extravagantly laudatory. You have rouged me up to the eyes. . . .
In any case of your approaching the subject of my poetry, you will please me best by speaking out the truth as it occurs to you, broadly, roughly, coarsely, in its whole dimensions. I set more price on your sincerity than on your praise, and consider it more closely connected with the quality called kindness. Recollect that these people who offer a pin to me that they may prick you with it in passing, do not care a pin for me. . . . I want kindness the rarest of all nearly—which is truth.
- A fact rendered pathetically historical by Mr. Horne's Report of his Commission
- Miss Barrett's review of Orion in the Athenæum.