Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 5
As early as February 1813, Elizabeth Barrett had prepared another volume of poems for the press, but was unable to find a publisher willing to undertake the risk of publication. Moxon, when applied to, declared that Tennyson was the only poet he did not lose by.
In the spring of 1844 she tells Horne: "I hope my book will be out in a few weeks now. It fags me and over-excites me too much. Perhaps you will think me improved? Perhaps—I seem to myself to have more strength. I only wish that bodies and souls would draw together."
Her hope notwithstanding, the poems remained unpublished all through the summer, and when at last the collection appeared, it had grown into two well-filled volumes which, after all, were issued by Moxon. The work was inscribed to her father in as affectionate terms as was her childhood's poetry, and the Dedication is interesting as showing, apart from other reasons, on what a footing she still lived with her surviving parent. "My father," she writes—
When your eyes fall upon this page of dedication, and you start to see to whom it is inscribed, your first thought will be of the time far off when I was a child and wrote verses, and when I dedicated them to you who were my public and my critic. Of all that such a recollection implies of saddest and sweetest to both of us, it would become neither of us to speak before the world; nor would it be possible for us to speak of it to one another with voices that did not falter. Enough that what is in my heart when I write thus will be fully known to yours.
And my desire is that you, who are a witness how if this art of poetry had been a less earnest object to me, it must have fallen from exhausted hands before this day—that you, who have shared with mo in things bitter and sweet, softening or enhancing them, every day—that you, who hold with me over all sense of loss and transiency, one hope by one name—may accept from me the inscription of these volumes, the exponents of a few years of an existence which has been sustained and comforted by you as well as given. Somewhat more faint-hearted than I used to be, it is my fancy thus to seem to return to a visible personal dependence on you, as if indeed I were a child again; to conjure your beloved image between myself and the public, so as to be sure of one smile—and to satisfy my heart while I satisfy my ambition, by associating with the great pursuit of my life its tenderest and holiest affection.
Her Dedication was followed by a lengthy Preface, which was to no small extent a criticism on her own collection, especially on the chief poem in it. After stating that the collection now offered to the public consisted of poems written since the publication of the Seraphim volume, and which were now, with a few exceptions, printed for the first time, she refers to the "Drama of Exile," the initial piece, "as the longest and most important work (to me!) which I have ever trusted into the current of publication."
The theme of the "Drama of Exile" is so daring, and the execution, despite innumerable faults, so excellent, that either condemnation or praise is hard to award. The great defect in what the poetess intended should be her masterpiece is that—notwithstanding the introduction of Adam and Eve, and the self-sacrificing love of the latter for her partner in sorrow—it is almost entirely devoid of human interest. Admiration is frequently compelled by bursts of true lyrical beauty, but the heart never throbs with hope nor thrills with terror for the poetic phantasmata whose weeping and wailing fill so many pages of the drama. There are, it is true, some magnificent passages of poetry in the work, notably Lucifer's description of the effect of the curse upon animal creation. Reminding Adam of "when the curse took us in Eden," he says—
Half sheathed in primal woods, and glittering
In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour
A lion couched—part raised upon his paws,
With his calm, massive face turned full on thine,
And his mane listening. When the ended curse
Left silence in the world—right suddenly
He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff
As if the new reality of death
Were dashed against his eyes—and roared so fierce,
(Such thick carnivorous passion in his throat
Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear)—
And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills
Such fast, keen echoes crumbling down the vales
Precipitately—that the forest beasts,
One after one, did mutter a response
In savage and in sorrowful complaint,
Which trailed along the gorges. Then, at once,
He fell back, and rolled crashing from the height.
This is a magnificent picture most grandiloquently portrayed, but it is the finest passage in the Drama. Its author appears to have felt that there was something wanting in her work, and, therefore, strives to explain away what might be objected to, and to deprecate criticism, by a lengthy Preface.
"The Vision of Poets," the second longest poem in the collection, is referred to by her as an attempt to express her view of the poet's mission, "of the self-abnegation implied in it, of the great work involved in it, of the duty and glory of what Balzac has beautifully and truly called la patience angéligue du génie; and of the obvious truth, above all, that if knowledge is power, suffering should be acceptable as a part of power." Without in any way endorsing Miss Barrett's theory, and, indeed, feeling that it is radically false to nature and genius, and that no poet should humiliate himself to the "world's use," or suffer unresistingly the humiliation of the "world's cruelty," it must at once be acknowledged that the grandeur and power of the poem is likely to blind readers to its perverse doctrine. Apart from Dante and Shakespeare, it would be difficult to meet with so great a condensation of thought, such abridged yet complete characterisation, as is frequently met with in this marvellous poem, and yet, all things considered, it is not perhaps very strange that the "Vision of Poets" has failed to elicit the applause of critics, and indeed to find that many of them have refrained from speaking of it at all. In the whole range of literature it would be difficult to parallel, in prose or verse, such concise yet descriptive portraiture as the poem contains. It is replete with compound words and epigrammatic sentences, but it must be confessed that the "Conclusion" is out of tone with the rest of the poem, and uncalled for. Every poem should, as Elizabeth Barrett says herself, have "an object and a significance"; but her propensity to drag in a moral, or to tag on a didactic dissertation of some kind, even from an artistic point of view, disfigures her most beautiful work.
Her Preface to the collection concludes with the hope that some of the faults which she had formerly been reproached with may have been outgrown:—
Because some progress in mind and in art every active thinker and honest writer must consciously or unconsciously make, with the progress of existence and experience; and, in some sort—since "we learn in suffering what we teach in song"—my songs may be fitter to teach. But if it wore not presumptuous language on the lips of one to whom life is more than usually uncertain, my favourite wish for this work would be, that it be received by the public as a stop in the right track, towards a future indication of more value and acceptability. I would fain do better—and I feel as if I might do better: I aspire to do better. . . . In any case, while my poems are full of faults—as I go forward to my critics and confess—they have my heart and life in them—they are not empty shells. . . . Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing: there has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry; nor leisure, for the hour of the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work—not as mere hand and head work, apart from the personal being—but as the completest expression of that being, to which I could attain—and as work I offer it to the public—feeling its shortcomings more deeply than any of my readers, because measured from the height of my aspiration—but feeling also that the reverence and sincerity with which the work was done should give it some protection with tho reverent and sincere.
The collection was received by quite an outburst of applause. Although the critics, with their usual dread of committing themselves too deeply, all found something to object to in the work, one admiring what another disliked, and the other disliking what the former admired, they all arrived at the conclusion that another true and great poet had arisen. "The critics," says Miss Barrett, "have all, according to their measure, been kind and generous to me. For the newspapers, besides those I mentioned, the Examiner sounded a clarion for me. I am well pleased altogether." To Horne she says,—
I have had a long and most kind letter from Harriet Martineau, and from Mrs. Jameson, and a kind note from Mr. Landor, and others. Now I do beseech you, by whatever regard you may feel for me (in which I am ambitious to believe), to write to mo a kind letter too—that is, a sincere letter. Do not fancy yourself obliged to write compliments to me—surely our friendship has outgrown such mere green wood. I promise not to enact the Archbishop of Granada if you speak the truth to me. . . . "The Drama of Exile," the longest poem, has been thrown aside by nearly all the official critics as inferior to the rest—and perhaps, as a whole, is unsuccessful. "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" appears to be the popular favourite. Oh, for life and strength to do something better and worthier than any of them! I feel as if I could do it.
In this instance all must now agree that the popular voice was the voice of justice. The "Drama of Exile," evidently the author's favourite, her most ambitious performance, and the work on which she had relied for fame, is a failure; a grand failure it is true, but from the very nature of its theme, bound to be more or less a failure, notwithstanding the fact that it contains passages of extraordinary grandeur and is replete with others of lyrical sweetness.
"Lady Geraldine's Courtship" is, deservedly, one of the most popular poems of the age. The best-known legend connected with its composition was, doubtless, originally promulgated by Miss Mitford to account for its wonderful rush of glowing language, and to enhance the mystery of its authoress, of whose personality so few people knew anything. The poem, making forty-two octavo pages, was averred to have been written within the space of twelve hours, written off at electric speed in order to make up the number of sheets required by the American publisher of the poems. How much of truth may be contained in this myth is hard to say, but that Miss Barrett composed at times with great rapidity is a fact. Much of the rugged rhythm and apparent carelessness of construction which characterises so many of her poems is doubtless due to the speed at which they were evolved, and to the same cause may be ascribed their occasional obscurity and other defects, but that their defective or affected rhyming was not due to this cause we have her own words to prove.
Of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" Edgar Poe, no careless critic, said that, with the exception of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," he had never perused a poem "containing so much of the fiercest passion with so much of the most ethereal fancy." "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" he somewhat too dogmatically pronounced to be "the only poem of its author which is not deficient, considered as an artistic whole. Her constructive ability," he added, "is either not very remarkable, or has never been properly brought into play. In truth, her genius is too impetuous for the minuter technicalities of that elaborate art so needful in the building up of pyramids for immortality."
It is but justice to Poe to tell that, after a full and frank exposition of her faults and her fancied faults, he gives ungrudging praise to her merits, not only deeming her poetic inspiration to be of the highest, the most august conceivable, but declaring it to be his deliberate opinion, "not idly entertained, nor founded on any visionary basis," that she had "surpassed all her poetical contemporaries of either sex, with a single exception," the exception being Tennyson. Poe's most enthusiastic admiration for Miss Barrett led him to do his best to spread a knowledge of her works in the United States, where, indeed, he was the pioneer of her fame. He dedicated to her—"To the noblest of her sex"—his last and most valuable volume of poems. Something of what the lady thought of him will be learned later on.
The story told in "Lady Geraldine's Courtship,"—"A Romance of the Age," as it is sub-titled—is devoid of sensational episodes or romantic incidents. It is almost barren of plot, and is founded on the threadbare basis of being told by the chief actor in a letter to a friend. The writer of the story is supposed to be a poet named Bertram, a man of the people, who has won a place in society by his poetic talent—
With their critical deductions for the modern writer's fault;
I could sit at rich men's tables, though the courtesies that raised me
Still suggested clear between us the pale spectrum of the salt.
Lady Geraldine meeting him, invites him to her country residence—Wycombe Hall, in Sussex. She, an earl’s daughter, is proud and noble, and being richly dowered with halls and castles, is beset by many suitors, all of whom are treated with disdain. Of course; Bertram falls passionately in love with her—
To love all things set above me, all of good and all of fair.
Meeting and conversing with her daily, and reading his own or other poets' writings to her, her hold upon him becomes more and more intense, until at last he cannot fly her presence, hopeless though he feels his love to be, and knowing that the longer he lingers near her the stronger grow his chains. Tangled in love's meshes, Bertram follows in the retinue of his fair hostess, wandering with her and her companions about the glorious grounds. Lady Geraldine is thus described as one day she stood:—
Of the virginal white vesture, gathered closely to her throat;
With the golden ringlets in her neck, just quickened by her going,
And appearing to breathe sun for air, and doubting if to float,—
With a branch of dewy maple, which her right hand held above her,
And which trembled a green shadow in betwixt her and the skies,—
As she turned her face in going, thus, she drew me on to love her,
And to study the deep meaning of the smile hid in her eyes.
Of a soul complete in lordship—might and right read on his brow:
Very finely courteous—far too noble to doubt his admiration
Of the common people—he atones for grandeur by a bow.
The poor poet, compelled to listen against his will, hears the lady reject her noble suitor, it is true, but, in answer to an inaudible remark from the earl, hears her respond—
Ay, and wealthy. I shall never blush to think how he was born.
When Bertram heard this, and knew that whatever foolish hopings against hope he may have entertained were for ever dashed to the ground, he forbore no longer, but rushed into her presence, as her lordly suitor retreated, and "spake out wildly—fiercely":—
Trod them down with words of shaming—all the purples and the gold,
And the "landed stakes" and lordships—all that spirits pure and ardent
Are cast out of love and reverence, because chancing not to hold.
But for better souls, that nearer to the height of yours have trod—
And this ago shows, to my thinking, still more infidels to Adam,
Than directly, by profession, simple infidels to God.
But at last there came a pause. I stood all vibrating with thunder,
Which my soul had used. The silence drew her face up like a call.
Could you guess what word she uttered? She looked up as if in wonder,
With tears beaded on her lashes, and said "Bertram!" it was all.
Which at need is used by women, she had risen up and said,
"Sir, you are my guest, and therefore, I have given you a full hearing—
Now, beseech you, choose a name exacting somewhat less, instead"—
A mere word, without her accents,—and you cannot judge the weight
Of the calm which crushed my passion! I seemed swimming in a vapour,—
And her gentleness did shame me, whom her scorn made desolate.
After this what follows is not difficult to guess; and it does not come as a surprise to learn this solution of her words:—
And she whispered low in triumph—It shall be as I have sworn!
Very rich he is in virtues,—very noble—noble, certes;
And I shall not blush in knowing, that men call him lowly born!
The poverty of the plot, the improbability of the whole story, the author's frequent ignorance of worldly matters, the faulty and too long deferred rhymes, lapses in the rhythm and occasional commonplaces, all vanish in the passionate glow of thought, in the rush of burning words, and the magnificent flood of imaginative poetry, tearing everything along with it in a resistless torrent of glory and grandeur, that fairly overpowers and conquers the most critical reader's judgment.
Besides the more prominent pieces already alluded to, the 1844 collection contained several other pieces of supreme merit. The sonnet, a condensed and artificial form of poesy almost outside the fluent muse of Elizabeth Barrett, had several pages devoted to it, but their merits were less conspicuous, although studded with beauties, than was usual with her work. "The Soul's Expression," as an autobiographic revelation, is interesting; "Grief" contains some fine thought, such as "I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless"; and "The Prisoner" concludes with a grand idea; but, as yet, her sonnets, although vigorous, were somewhat unskilfully wrought, and uncouth in expression.
The miscellaneous poems cannot be too highly praised, nor too often perused; fresh beauties burst forth at every glance. "The Lay of the Brown Rosarie" is replete with scintillations of true poetic fervour; it is styled a ballad, but is of a purer tone and a more etherealised spirit than is generally prevalent in ballad poesy, ancient or modern. In its circumscribed space the story is complete; and although undisfigured by the "moral" so frequently and needlessly dragged in by Miss Barrett, is all through its dramatic course illuminated by an underglow of suggested meaning.
"The Duchess May," another ballad, of more heroic mould, is less in sympathy with our century's way of thinking. It contains grand lines and stirring thoughts, but the narrative is improbable, the subject not in unison with the age's tendencies, and, therefore, unsuited to its author's own practical, if passionate mind. To "The Lost Bower," interspersed as it is with personal allusions, reference has already been made. It is replete with passages of the purest poesy, and leaves an impression upon the reader's mind of mingled melody and pathos—childish simplicity and womanly wisdom—time will vainly try to efface. The following lines from "The Lost Bower" will, like petals picked from a lovely blossom, suggest how beauteous the complete bloom may be:—
Steps in jocund childhood played—
Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade;
Summer-snow of apple-blossoms, running up from glade to glade
In my vision of the rest;
And a little wood seems clearer,
As it climbeth from the west,
Sideway from the tree-locked valley, to the airy upland crest.
And, completing the ascent,
Where the wind blows and sun dazzles
Thrills in leafy tremblement:
Like a heart that, after climbing, beateth quickly though content. . . .
That fair walk and far survey:
'Twas a straight walk, unadvised by
The least mischief worth a nay—
Up and down—as dull as grammar on an eve of holiday!
Bough in bough and root in root,—
No more sky (for over-branching)
At your head than at your foot,—
Oh, the wood drew me within it, by a glamour past dispute. . . .
With a fawn's heart debonair,
Thorns that prick and boughs that bear,
I stood suddenly astonied—I was gladdened unaware!
Back the covert dim and close;
And the open ground was suited
Carpet-smooth with grass and moss,
And the bluebell’s purple presence signed it worthily across.
All adown its silver rind;
For, as some trees draw the lightning,
So this tree, unto my mind,
Drew to earth the blessed sunshine, from the sky where it was shrined. . . .
An old hawthorn also grew;
And wood-ivy like a spirit
Hovered dimly round the two,
Shaping thence that Bower of beauty, which I sing of thus to you. . . .
Stole all noises from my foot:
And a round elastic cushion,
Clasped within the linden's root,
Took me in a chair of silence, very rare and absolute. . . .
To my Fancy's wildest word—
On a sudden, through the glistening
Leaves around, a little stirred,
Came a sound, a sense of music, which was rather felt than heard.
From the world it shut me in,—
Like a fountain falling round me,
Which with silver waters thin
Clips a little marble Naiad, sitting smilingly within. . . .
And an inward trembling heat,
And (it seemed) in geste of passion,
Dropped the music to my feet,
Like a garment rustling downwards—such a silence followed it. . . .
Straightway from the bower I past;
Foot and soul being dimly drifted
Through the greenwood, till, at last,
In the hill-top's open sunshine, I all consciously was cast. . . .
Never bower has seemed so fair—
Never garden-creeper crossed it,
With so deft and brave an air—
Never bird sung in the summer, as I saw and heard them there. . . .
These stray extracts can give but a faint idea of the pathetic beauty of the whole poem; of its gust of melodious musical melancholy—which "resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles rain." Haplessly, like so many of its author's best pieces, the story is burdened and drawn out by a lengthy, unneeded "moral" being appended to it.
In "A Child Asleep" are to be found thoughts and similes worthy of the highest poetic parentage; but one idea, "Folded eyes see brighter colours than the open ever do," is scarcely an improvement upon Coleridge's beautiful verse, "My eyes make pictures when they are shut." "The Cry of the Children," and some other splendid pieces gathered into this collection have already received notice; but amid the remainder may be specially pointed out "The Fourfold Aspect," "A Flower in a Letter," "The Cry of the Human," with its terrible opening—
But none, "There is no sorrow";
And Nature oft, the cry of faith
In bitter need will borrow.
Eyes, which the preacher could not school,
By wayside graves are raised;
And lips say "God be pitiful,"
Who ne'er said "God be praised!"—
"A Lay of the Early Rose," despite its obtrusive moral, "Bertha in the Lane," "A Rhapsody of Life's Progress," that "most musical, most melancholy" "Catarina to Camoëns," "The Romance of the Swan's Nest," and others of various kinds of excellence, and all possessed of power and beauty sufficient for each one separately to make the reputation of any lesser poet. The peculiar pathos of "The Romance of the Swan's Nest" dowers it with some indefinable fascination, and causes it to have for us a pre-eminence of charm we have never been able to explain. It is as sweet as the aroma from new-mown hay, yet as sad as the ceaseless moan on the sea-bruised beach. It is short, and all worthy of quotation in full:—
Mid the beeches of a meadow,
By a stream-side, on the grass:
And the trees are showering down
Doubles of their leaves in shadow,
On her shining hair and face.
And her feet she has been dipping
In the shallow water's flow—
Now she holds them nakedly
In her hands, all sleek and dripping,
While she rocketh to and fro.
And the smile, she softly useth,
Fills the silence like a speech;
While she thinks what shall be done,—
And the sweetest pleasure chooseth,
For her future within reach!
Chooseth . . . "I will have a lover,
Riding on a steed of steeds!
He shall love me without guile;
And to him I will discover
The swan's nest among the reeds.
And the lover shall be noble,
With an eye that takes the breath,—
And the lute he plays upon,
Shall strike ladies into trouble,
As his sword stikes men to death.
All in silver, housed in azure,
And the mane shall swim the wind
And the hoofs, along the sod,
Shall flash onward in a pleasure,
Till the shepherds look behind.
All the glory that he rides in,
When he gazes in my face!
He will say, 'O Love, thine eyes
Build the shrine my soul abides in;
And I kneel here for thy grace.'
With the red-roan steed anear him,
Which shall seem to understand—
Till I answer, 'Rise, and go!
For the world must love and fear him
Whom I gift with heart and hand.'
I shall feel my own lips tremble
With a yes I must not say—
Nathless, maiden-brave, 'Farewell,'
I will utter and dissemble—
'Light to-morrow, with to-day.'
To the wide world past the river,
There to put away all wrong!
To make straight distorted wills,—
And to empty the broad quiver
Which the wicked bear along.
Swim the stream, and climb the mountain,
And kneel down beside my feet—
'Lo! my master sends this gage,
Lady, for thy pity's counting!
What wilt thou exchange for it?'
A white rosebud for a guerdon,—
And the second time, a glove!
But the third time—I may bend
From my pride, and answer"—'Pardon—
If he come to take my love.'
Then my lover will ride faster,
Till he kneeleth at my knee!
'I am a duke's eldest son!
Thousand serfs do call me master,—
But, Love, I love but thee!'
Then, and lead me as a lover,
Through the crowds that praise his deeds!
And, when soul-tied by one troth,
Unto him I will discover
That swan's nest among the reeds."
Not yet ended, rose up gaily,—
Tied the bonnet, donned the shoe—
And went homeward, round a mile,
Just to see, as she did daily,
What more eggs were with the two.
Winding by the stream, light-hearted,
Where the osier pathway leads—
Past the boughs she stoops—and stops!
Lo! tho wild swan had deserted—
And a rat had gnawed the reeds.
If she found the lover ever,
With his red-roan steed of steeds,
Sooth I know not! but I know
She could show him never—never,
That swan's nest among the reeds!
Another remarkable and still more powerful poem is "The Dead Pan," with which the collection concludes. In its beauties and, it must be acknowledged, in its faults, this piece is thoroughly idiosyncratic of its author. The poem, says Elizabeth Barrett, was partly inspired by Schiller's Götter Griechenlands, and partly by the tradition recorded by Plutarch, that at the moment of Christ's death on the cross a cry was heard sweeping across the sea, "Great Pan is dead!" and that then and forever all the oracles of heathendom ceased. "It is in all veneration to the memory of the deathless Schiller," says the poetess, "that I oppose a doctrine still more dishonouring to poetry than to Christianity."
To John Kenyon, whose "graceful and harmonious paraphrase of the German poem was the first occasion of the turning" of her thoughts towards the theme, she inscribed "The Dead Pan." Thoroughly typical of her style is the opening invocation:—
Can you listen in your silence?
Can your mystic voices tell us
Where ye hide? In floating islands,
With a wind that evermore
Keeps you out of sight of shore?
Pan, Pan is dead.
Of the many peculiar rhymes which Miss Barrett—sometimes "without rhyme or reason"—persistently made use of in this and other of her poems, the quoted stanza does not present an unfair example. Her correspondence with Horne on the subject is not only amusing, but also characteristic of her unchangeableness of will when she believed in her own ideas. She had forwarded Horne the manuscript of her poem, and requested his opinion upon it. What was his full reply is unknown, but he remarks: "Of course, I admired its poetry and versification, but concerning her victims of perfect and imperfect, or allowable rhymes, in that, and several of her other productions, I wished, once for all, to object, and give full reasons for it." "I took objection to many of the rhymes," says Horne. "I did not like 'tell us' as a rhyme for 'Hellas,' and still less 'islands' as a rhyme for 'silence.'" Other still less excusable examples were objected to, such as "rolls on" and "the sun"; "altars" and "welters"; "flowing" and "slow in"; "iron" and "inspiring"; "driven" and "heaving," and so forth. What little effect her brother poet's animadversions had upon Miss Barrett, the following words will show:—
"My dear Mr. Horne,—Do you know I could not help, in the midst of my horror and Panic terror, smiling outright at the naïveté of your doubt as to whether my rhymes were really meant for rhymes at all? That is the naïveté of a right savage nature—of an Indian playing with a tomahawk, and speculating as to whether the white faces had any feeling in their skulls, quand même! Know, then, that my rhymes are really meant for rhymes, . . . and that in no spirit of carelessness or easy writing, or desire to escape difficulties, have I run into them, but chosen them, selected them, on principle, and with the determinate purpose of doing my best. . . . What you say of a "poet's duty," no one in the world can feel more deeply in the verity of it than myself. If I fail ultimately before the public—that is, before the people—for an ephemeral popularity does not appear to me worth trying for—it will not be because I have shrunk from the amount of labour—where labour could do anything. I have worked at poetry—it has not been with me reverie, but art. As the physician and lawyer work at their several professions, so have I, and so do I, apply to mine.
" . . . With reference to the double rhyming, it has appeared to me employed with far less variety in our serious poetry than our language would admit of generally, and that the various employment of it would add another string to the lyre of our Terpander. . . . A great deal of attention—far more than it would take to rhyme with conventional accuracy—have I given to the subject of rhymes, and have determined in cold blood to hazard some experiments. . . .
"And now, upon all this—to prove to you that I do not set out on this question with a minority of one—I take the courage and vanity to send to you a note which a poet whom we both admire wrote to a friend of mine, who lent him the manuscript of this very "Pan." Mark! no opinion was asked about the rhymes—the satisfaction was altogether impulsive—from within. Send me the note back, and never tell anybody that I showed it to you—it would appear too vain. Also, I have no right to show it. It was sent to me as likely to please me, and pleased me so much and naturally on various accounts, and not the least from the beauty of the figure used to illustrate my rhymatology, that I begged to be allowed to keep it. So send it back, after reading it confidentially, and pardon me as much as you can of the self-will fostered by it."
After such a response, Horne, as will be readily imagined, dropped the subject of allowable rhymes; but, it is most interesting to learn, the poet whose opinion had proved so satisfactory to Miss Barrett was Mr. Robert Browning, at that time personally unknown to her.
Writing on the 3rd December to Horne, Miss Barrett says: "The volumes are succeeding past any expectation or hope of mine. . . . I continue to have letters of the kindest from unknown readers. I had a letter yesterday from the remote region of Gutter Lane, beginning, 'I thank thee!' . . . The American publisher has printed fifteen hundred copies. If I am a means of ultimate loss to him, I shall sit in sack-cloth."
There was no need to have feared for the American any more than for the English publisher—both found Miss Barrett's poems a good investment. Her reputation, indeed, was of almost as early a growth in the United States as in Great Britain. Edgar Poe, if not the first, was one of the first to introduce her to the American public, issuing some of her earlier pieces through the pages of Graham's Magazine, which he was then editing.
In a critique he subsequently wrote on Miss Barrett's poetry, Poe alludes to certain shortcomings in the technicalities of verse, especially bewailing her inattention to rhythm, an error that might have been fatal to her fame; but concludes with the declaration that the pen is impotent to express in detail the beauties of her work. "Her poetic inspiration," he remarks, "is the highest; we can conceive nothing more august." Nevertheless, he perceives that her sense of art, pure in itself, "has been contaminated by pedantic study of false models—a study which has the more easily led her astray, because she placed an undue value upon it as rare—as alien to her character of woman. The accident," he considers, "of her having been long secluded by ill-health from the world . . . has imparted to her . . . a comparative independence of men and opinions with which she did not come personally in contact, a happy audacity of thought and expression never before known in one of her sex."
Lofty as was Poe's opinion and exalted his praise of her, Elizabeth Barrett did not appear to care altogether for his remarks. Writing to Horne in May, 1845, she says: "Your friend, Mr. Poe, is a speaker of strong words 'in both kinds' . . . Mr. Poe seems to me in a great mist on the subject of metre . . . But I hope you will assure him from me that I am grateful for his reviews, and in no complaining humour at all. As to The Raven, tell me what you shall say about it! There is certainly a power, but it does not appear to me the natural expression of a sane intellect in whatever mood; and I think that this should be specified in the title of the poem. There is a fantasticaluess about the 'Sir or Madam,' and things of the sort, which is ludicrous, unless there is a specified insanity to justify the straws. Probably he—the author—intended it to be read in the poem, and he ought to have intended it. The rhythm, acts excellently upon the imagination, and the 'nevermore' has a solemn chime in it . . . Just because I have been criticised, I would not criticise. And I am of opinion that there is an uncommon force and effect in the poem."
Writing subsequently to Poe on the subject of this poem, Miss Barrett says: "The Raven has produced a sensation—a 'fit horror' here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it, and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the 'Nevermore,' and one acquaintance of mine, who has the misfcrtune of possessing a 'bust of Pallas,' never can bear to look at it in the twilight. Our great poet, Mr. Browning, is enthusiastic in his admiration of the rhythm."
Encouraged by her remarks, Poe sent her a copy of a selection of his Tales, just published, and Miss Barrett, writing to a friend, alludes to the story entitled The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar thus: "There is a tale of his which I do not find in this volume, but which is going the rounds of the newspapers, about mesmerism, throwing us all into most admired disorder, or dreadful doubts as to whether it can be true, as the children say of ghost stories. The certain thing in the tale in question is the power of the writer, and the faculty he has of making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar."
The great success of her latest literary venture naturally brought Miss Barrett a large increase of correspondence; nevertheless, she contrived to maintain epistolary chatter with such old friends as Miss Mitford and Horne. One prominent theme with her at this period was the marvellous recovery of Harriet Martineau, after several years of confirmed illness. This cure of a disease considered hopeless by orthodox medical men was ascribed to mesmerism. It naturally created a lively sensation, even beyond the boundaries of medical and literary circles, and no one appears to have been more deeply and permanently impressed by the affair than Elizabeth Barrett, who was naturally inspired with admiration and interest for the sturdy independence, in some respects akin to her own, of her friend, correspondent, and contemporary, Harriet Martineau. Writing to an American friend, Miss Barrett remarks, "Harriet Martineau's mesmeric experience . . . is making a great noise and sensation here, and producing some vexation among her unbelieving friends. It was, however, worthy of herself, having, according to her own belief, received a great benefit from means not only questionable, but questioned, to come forward bravely and avouch the truth of it. Do you believe at all? I do, but it is in the highest degree repulsive to me as a subject, and suggestive of horror. It is making great way in England, and, as far as I can understand, is disputed more by the unlearned than the learned."
Writing to Horne in November, 1844, she says: "As you remind me, Miss Martineau is a great landmark to show how far a recovery can go. She can walk five miles a day now with ease, and is well, she says—not comparatively well, but well in the strict sense . . . She has an apocalyptic housemaid (save the mark!) who, being clairvoyante, prophesies concerning the anatomical structure of herself and others, and declares 'awful spiritual dicta' concerning the soul and the mind and their future destination; discriminating, says Miss Martineau, 'between what she hears at church and what is true' . . . I am credulous and superstitious, naturally, and find no difficulty in the wonder; only precisely because I believe it, I would not subject myself to this mystery at the will of another, and this induction into things unseen. My blood runs the wrong way to think of it. Is it lawful, or, if lawful, expedient? Do you believe a word of it, or are you sceptical like papa?"
Miss Martineau, with her usual stern idea of duty, considered it right that her cure and its cause should be told to the public. Unfortunately, her medical attendant, in order to controvert her theory, departed from the rules of his profession, ignored the rights due to a patient, and made public particulars which he, at least, should have kept private. Alluding to these circumstances in a letter subsequent to the above. Miss Barrett says: "Miss Martineau is astonishing the world with mesmeric statements through the medium of the Athenæum—and yet, it happens so that, I believe, few converts will be made by her. The medical men have taken up her glove brutally—as dogs might do—dogs, exclusive of my Flush, who is a gentleman." Later on she writes, "I hear that Carlyle won't believe in mesmerism, and calls Harriet Martineau mad. 'The madness showed itself first in the refusal of a pension; next, in the resolution that, the universe being desirous of reading her letters, the universe should be disappointed; and thirdly, in this creed of mesmerism.' I wish (if he ever did use such words) somebody would tell him that the first manifestation, at least, was of a noble phrenzy, which in these latter days is not too likely to prove contagious. For my own part, I am not afraid to say that I almost believe in mesmerism, and quite believe in Harriet Martineau."
Miss Mitford's correspondence with our poetess was very voluminous during the greater part of 1844 and 1845, but little of personal incident enters into it. The elder lady was enchanted to learn that Miss Barrett intended in future "to write narrative poetry, and narrative poetry of real life," and endeavoured to arouse in her mind, but with scant success, an admiration for the first Napoleon.
That in literature, if in nothing else, woman should not only compete with man on an equal footing, but be judged by a similar measure, is a truth all right-minded men would feel, one would think, and yet it is a truth not very widely promulgated or generally recognised. Elizabeth Barrett was not the woman to feel and not assert her ideas on such a theme. "Please to recollect," she says, writing to Horne on the subject of eminent women, "that when I talk of women, I do not speak of them as many men do, . . . according to a separate, peculiar, and womanly standard, but according to the common standard of human nature."
Her fidelity to a conviction could not be shaken by any amount of popular prejudice or private influence. Her ideal of a truth once conceived nothing could destroy, or argument upset. She had formed strong opinions with regard to Leigh Hunt's theology, and, consequently, looked on his writings with suspicion. "There may be sectarianism in the very cutting off of sectarianism," she says, and instances his omission in a critical work upon poetry, "of one of the very noblest odes in the English language—that on the Nativity, because—it is not on the birth of Bacchus."
Such remarks, and they abound in her characteristic epistles, are of great biographical value, as throwing light upon her firm and thoroughly independent mind. By far the larger portion of her correspondence that has as yet come to light is purely literary. Books and their builders is her constant theme. The popularity of her works in the United States caused her to receive many letters from Americans, and sometimes drew her into discussions with them on the social and other aspects of their country. Writing to one of her New England friends, she says:—
"The cataracts and mountains you speak of have been—are—mighty dreams to me; and the great people which, proportionate to that scenery, is springing up in their midst to fill a yet vaster futurity, is dearer to me than a dream. America is our brother land, and, though a younger brother, sits already in the teacher's seat and expounds the common rights of our humanity. It would be strange if we in England did not love and exult in America. . . . It is delightful and encouraging to me to think that there, 'among the cataracts and mountains,' which I shall never see—and there is 'dream-land'—sound the voices of friends; and it shall be a constant effort with me to deserve presently, in some better measure, the kindness for which I never can be more grateful than now.
Shall pass into his face."
In the meantime we give honour to those tuneful voices of your people, which prophesy a yet sweeter music than they utter. . . .
"You will wonder a good deal, but would do so less if you were aware of the seclusion of my life, when I tell you that I never consciously stood face to face with an American in the whole course of it. I never had any sort of personal acquaintance with an American man or woman; therefore you are all dreamed dreams to me—'gentle dreams' I may well account you."
In another characteristic letter, written about this time to her American correspondent, Miss Barrett says:—
"Poor Hood is dying, in a state of perfect preparation and composure, among the tears of his friends. His disease has been consumption—is, in fact; but the disease is combined with water on the chest, which is expected to bring death. To a friend who asked him the other morning how it was with him, he answered with characteristic playful pathos, 'The tide is rising, and I shall soon be in port.' It is said of him that he has no regrets for his life, except for the unborn works which he feels stirring in his dying brain—a species of regret which is peculiarly affecting to me, as it must be to all who understand it. Alas! it is plain that he has genius greater than anything he has produced, and if this is plain and sad to us, how profoundly melancholy it must be to him. The only comfort is that the end of development is not here."
The light reflected on her own mental organization by these excerpts is profoundly interesting, and affords a deeper insight into her character than could possibly be obtained by the study of her works written solely for the public eye. In a lighter mood, and somewhat as a relief to the more sombre shades of thoughts lately displayed, one may revert to some of her playful but not less idiosyncratic sayings about her dog Flush. Writing to the American correspondent just referred to she says:—
"As to Flush, I thank you for him, for being glad that he has not arrived at the age of 'gravity and baldness,' and I can assure you of the fact of his not being yet four years old (the very prime of his life), and of his having lost no zest for the pleasures of the world, such as eating sponge cake and drinking coffee à la crême. He lies by me on the sofa, where I lie and write. He lies quite at ease between the velvet of my gown and the fur of my couvre-pied; and has no wicked dreams, I can answer for it, of a hare out of breath, or of a partridge shot through the whirring wing; if he sees a ghost at all it is of a little mouse which he killed once by accident. He is as innocent as the first dog, when Eve patted him."
In Miss Barrett's correspondence with another literary friend of this period, the late Thomas Westwood, of poetic repute, the name of Flush frequently figures. On one occasion, says Mr. Westwood, she had expressed regret at the increasing plumpness of her pet. Apparently the gentleman had suggested starvation as a remedy, for her remedy runs thus:—
"Starve Flush! Starve Flush! My dear Mr. Westwood, what are you thinking of? And besides, if the crime were lawful and possible, I deny the necessity. He is fat, certainly; but he has been fatter. As I say, sometimes, with a sigh of sentiment—he has been fatter, and he may therefore become thinner. And then, he does not eat after the manner of dogs. I never saw a dog with such a ladylike appetite, nor knew of one by tradition. To eat two small biscuits in succession is generally more than he is inclined to do. When he has meat it is only once a day, and it must be so particularly well cut up and offered to him on a fork, and he is subtly discriminative as to differences between boiled mutton and roast mutton, and roast chicken and boiled chicken, that often he walks away in disdain, and 'will have none of it.' He makes a point, indeed, of taking his share of my muffin and of my coffee, and a whole queen's cake when he can get it; but it is a peculiar royalty of his to pretend to be indifferent even to these—to refuse them when offered to him—to refuse them once, twice, and thrice—only to keep his eye on them, that they should not vanish from the room by any means, as it is his intention to have them at last. My father is quite vexed with me sometimes, and given to declare that I have instructed Flush in the art of giving himself airs, and, otherwise, that no dog in the world could be, of his own accord and instinct, so like a woman. But I never did so instruct him. The ’airs' came as the wind blows. Pie surprises me just as he surprises other people—and more, because I see more of him. His sensibility on the matter of vanity strikes me most amusingly. To be dressed up in necklaces and a turban is an excessive pleasure to him; and to have the glory of eating everything that he sees me eat is to be glorious indeed. Because I offered him cream cheese on a bit of toast and forgot the salt, he refused at once. It was Bedreddin and the unsalted cheese-cake over again. And this although he hates salt, and is conscious of his hatred of salt; but his honour was in the salt, according to his view of the question, and he insisted upon its being properly administered. Now, tell me if Flush's notion of honour and the modern world's are not much on a par. In fact, he thought I intended by my omission to place him below the salt.
"My nearest approach to starving Flush (to come to an end of the subject) is to give general instructions to the servant who helps him to his dinner 'not to press him to eat.' I know he ought not to be fat—I know it too well—and his father being, according to Miss Mitford's account, square at this moment, there is an hereditary reason for fear. So he is not to be 'pressed'; and, in the meantime, with all the incipient fatness, he is as light at a jump, and as quick of spirits as ever, and quite well."
In a subsequent letter, she again refers to her pet, thus:—
"May I tell you that I have lost and won poor Flush again, and that I had to compound with the thieves and pay six guineas in order to recover him, much as I did last year—besides the tears, the tears! And when he came home he began to cry. His heart was full, like my own. Nobody knows, except you and me and those who have experienced the like affections, what it is to love a dog and lose it. Grant the love, and the loss is imaginable, but I complain of the fact that people, who will not or cannot grant the love, set about wondering how one is not ashamed to make such a fuss for a dog. As if love (whether of dogs or man) must not have the same quick sense of sorrow. For my part, my eyelids have swelled and reddened both for the sake of lost dogs and birds—and I do not feel particularly ashamed of it. For Flush, who loves me to the height and depth of the capacity of his own nature, if I did not love him, I could love nothing. Besides, Flush has a soul to love. Do you not believe that dogs have souls? I am thinking of writing a treatise on the subject, after the manner of Plato's famous one.
"The only time almost that Flush and I quarrel seriously, is when I have, as happens sometimes, a parcel of new books to undo and look at. He likes the undoing of the parcel, being abundantly curious; but to see me absorbed in what he takes to be admiration for the new books is a different matter, and makes him superlatively jealous. I have two long ears flapping into my face immediately from the pillow over my head, in serious appeal. Poor Flushie! The point of this fact is, that when I read old books he does not care."
Nowhere was the name of Elizabeth Barrett now more honoured, or lauded than in the United. States, and many were the Americans who strove to obtain her co-operation in their schemes, philanthropic or otherwise. The Abolitionists were the most energetic and successful. There were evident reasons why the daughter of Edward, the niece of Samuel, Barrett should not take any prominent part in public questions connected with slavery, but Elizabeth could not but feel deeply for all enduring sorrow or oppression, and such, she was persuaded, were the negroes in America. Her aid was obtained, she wrote a poem on the subject, a poem intended to further the abolition of slavery, and sent it to America. She appeared to have repented subsequently of the work, and expressed a hope that the lines would not be published. They appeared however, in 1845, in The Liberty Bell as "A Curse for a Nation."
Her friendly tone notwithstanding, the lines appear to have created some soreness, and to one American correspondent who had remonstrated with her about them she wrote:—"Never say that I have cursed your country, I only declared the consequences of the evil in her, and which has since developed itself in thunder and flame. I feel, with more pain than many Americans do, the sorrow of this transition time; but I do know that it is a transition; that it is a crisis, and that you will come out of the fire purified, stainless, having had the angel of a great cause walking with you in the furnace." These prophetic words, referring to the result of the great conflict in America, she did not live to see verified.
During 1845, Miss Barrett continued a fitful correspondence with Miss Mitford and Horne. The latter she had not as yet seen personally, but Miss Mitford visited her from time to time, occasionally travelling up from Reading in the morning and returning home the same evening, a great fatigue for the elderly lady, as she admitted. Miss Barrett's health now seemed to have permanently improved, and there was only the English winter to fear. On the 29th September she writes to Horne:—
"My foot is in the air—balanced on the probability of a departure from England, for some land of the sun yet in the clouds. Italy perhaps, Madeira possibly, there to finish my recovery, or rather to prevent my yearly rechute in the wintry cold—so let me hear from you quickly. . . . I am likely to go very soon if at all—the uncertainty is dominant—and I have been long and continue still in great vexation and perplexity from this doubtfulness. . . . If I go to Italy, it will be by sea, and high authorities among the doctors promise me an absolute restoration in consequence of it—and I myself have great courage and hope when I do not look beyond myself. I have been drinking life at the sun all this summer (and that is why the fountains of it have seemed so dry to you and the rest of the world), but, though in improved health and courage, I am sometimes a very Jacques for melancholy, and go moralising into a thousand similes half the uses of the day. . . . Miss Mitford proposed kindly coming to see me before I left England, but I have no spirits just now to make farewells of. When I set up my Republic against Plato's, nobody shall say good-bye in it, except the 'good haters' one to another."
A saddening and in other ways distressing event which took place soon after the above letter was written rendered the hoped for journey still more needful. How it came about was thus. Somewhere in the autumn of 1837, Miss Mitford had forwarded Elizabeth Barrett a note introducing Haydon, the artist, remarking, "Miss Arabel will like his vivacity and good spirits." An acquaintanceship was formed, apparently by correspondence, between the poetess and the artist, and continued till the death of the latter. In 1842, Haydon forwarded to Miss Barrett, for her acceptance, a portrait he had painted of Wordsworth on Helvellyn, and her acceptance of the valuable gift ran thus:—
"My intention was to return by your messenger, when he should come for the picture, some expression of my sense of your very great kindness in trusting it with me, together with this sonnet, but having since beard from my sister (Arabel) that it may be almost as long as I wish (no! it can't be so long) before you send such a messenger, I cannot defer thanking you beyond to-day, lest you should fancy me either struck dumb with the pleasure you conferred, or, still worse, born an ungrateful person. Nay, dear Sir, believe how different is the reality from the last supposition.
"I have indeed looked at your picture until I lost my obligation to you in my admiration of your work, but in no other way have I been ungrateful. How could I be so? I have seen the great poet who 'reigns over us' twice, face to face, and by you I see him the third time. You have brought me Wordsworth and Helvellyn into this dark and solitary room. . . . You will judge the sonnet too, and will probably not acquit it. It confesses to speaking unworthily and weakly the feeling of its writer, but she is none the less your obliged, Elizabeth Barrett."
The sonnet, which can scarcely be deemed a success, that is, a success for Miss Barrett, appeared in the Athenæum of October 9th. Together with the portrait that had been the source of its inspiration, Haydon sent the poetess a sketch of his projected picture of Curtius leaping into the gulf, and several little courtesies appear to have passed between the two during the two or three succeeding years. Haydon, who was in a chronic state of pecuniary embarrassment, appears to have occasionally troubled Miss Barrett by leaving in her charge pictures that might otherwise have passed into the possession of the law, or the law's officers. He was also whimsical, eccentric, and often maddened by his treatment by the public. Miss Mitford records how he had painted a portrait of her, "far bigger than life, and with equal excess of colour, but otherwise like." Her father did not praise this production enough to please the artist, who felt that it was not considered a success. He took it home and cut out the head, which, however, he preserved. Some days before his melancholy death he sent this portrait to Miss Barrett, because, as he said, he knew she would value it. The next day he called on her at Wimpole Street, to say that he could not part with the portrait, he could only lend it to her. This was three days before his death. The circumstances attending the unfortunate artist's fate are well known. To endeavour to attract some share of the notice the public was bestowing upon less worthy objects, he exhibited one of his most ambitious paintings in a room opposite to where "General Tom Thumb" was displaying himself. The result was disastrous; whilst the natural phenomenon was visited by thousands, the painting was utterly deserted, and its unhappy exhibitor, in despair, put an end to his own existence. "The grotesque bitterness of the antagonism," says Miss Barrett, "was too much for Haydon—the dwarf slew the giant."
Besides the shock which the news of Haydon's suicide was to Miss Barrett, she was placed in a sad state of trouble by the information that by taking charge of his manuscripts and papers whilst he was in an insolvent state she had in some way infringed the law, and might find herself entangled in controversy with his creditors. Happily this fright proved groundless, as did also the fear that she was expected to edit or have anything to do with the twenty-six large volumes of Diary he had left in her charge. "I take it that they will be very interesting," says Miss Mitford, "not so much about art, but about poetry and literature, and the world in general, poor Haydon having been the friend of almost every eminent man for the last forty years; but he was so keen and close an observer, and so frank and bold a writer, that the publication of the Memoirs will be terribly dangerous, and would have killed Elizabeth Barrett."
The letter in which Miss Barrett communicated her own account of her feelings on this occasion is sufficiently explicit. She says:—
"The shock of poor Mr. Haydon's death overcame me for several days. Our correspondence had ceased a full year and a half; but the week preceding the event he wrote several notes to me; and, by his desire, I have under my care boxes and pictures of his, which he brought himself to the door. Never did I imagine that it was other than one of the passing embarrassments so unhappily frequent with him. Once before he had asked me to give shelter to things belonging to him, which, when the storm had blown over, he had taken back again. I did not suppose that in this storm he was to sink—poor, noble soul!
"And be sure that the pecuniary embarrassment was not what sank him. It was a wind still more east; it was the despair of the ambition by which he lived, and without which he could not live. In the self-assertion which he had struggled to hold up through life he went down into death. He could not bear the neglect, the disdain, the slur cast upon him by the age, and so he perished. . . . His love of reputation, you know, was a disease with him; and, for my part, I believe that he died of it. That is my belief.
"In the last week he sent me his portrait of you (Miss Mitford) among the other things. When he proposed sending it, he desired me to keep it for him; but when it came, a note also came to say that he 'could not make up his mind to part with it; he would lend it to me for a while'; a proof, among the rest, that his act was not premeditated—a moment of madness, or a few moments of madness: who knows? I could not read the inquest, nor any of the details in the newspapers."
Beyond the shock the news of this tragedy gave Miss Barrett she suffered no other ill-effects from it. Poor Haydon's effects were handed over to his legal representatives, and the poetess released from all further trouble about them. She was not, however, successful in getting away on her projected journey during the succeeding winter, but the dreaded relapse did not befall her. Her health continued to improve beyond all hopes, whilst the foretoken of a great coming happiness must have kept her in a fantasy of joy brighter than she could, have ever, or for long past years, have looked for.
- The crime for which poor Bedreddin Hassan had to suffer was leaving pepper out of the cheese-cakes, according to our version of the Arabian Nights.