January-September 1856

The Collected Letters, Volume 31


TC TO ROBERT BROWNING ; 25 April 1856; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18560425-TC-RB-01; CL 31: 75-76


Chelsea, 25 April, 1856—

Dear Browning,

It is a long time since I got your Book according to program;1 a long time since I read it all, many of the Pieces again and again: nor was it a difficulty of conscience that has kept me silent; my approval was hearty and spontaneous, able I was and am to give you “Euge! [well done]” far beyond what I reckon you desire; and indeed I believe myself to stand among the first ranks of your readers in that particular. But you asked with so much loyalty, “What shall I do to be saved,2 and gain the top in this sore upward course?” and seemed to have such a faith in the older Stager and fellow-climber to give you a word of advice,—I really knew not what to say, and hesitated always. Not to say that I am dreadfully busy, and never have a moment that is not sunk in dust and difficulty and semi-despair these many months and years!— At length I have renounced altogether the high thought of “advising,” and the like; for indeed I see the case is very complex, and I have learned by experience that advice, real advice from without, is generally an impossibility. “Nobody follows advice,” they say; which means withal, “Advice never hits the case; the case is not known to any Adviser, but only to the Advisee,—who has good right to protest, for most part!” Accept a few rough human words, then, such as the day gives; and do not consider them as pretending to be more than honest words, rough and ready, for a fellow-pilgrim well affected to you.

It is certain there is an excellent opulence of intellect in these two rhymed volumes: intellect in the big ingot shape and down to the smallest current coin;—I should look far, I believe, to find such a pair of eyes as I see busy there inspecting human life this long while. The keenest just insight into men and things;—and all that goes along with really good insight: a fresh valiant manful character, equipped with rugged humour, with just love, just contempt, well carried and bestowed;—in fine a most extraordinary power of expression; such I must call it, whether it be “expressive” enough, or not. Rhythm there is too, endless poetic fancy, symbolical help to express; and if not melody always or often (for that would mean finish and perfection), there is what the Germans call takt [tempo],—fine dancing, if to the music only of drums.3

Such a faculty of talent, “genius” if you like the name better, seems to me worth cultivating, worth sacrificing oneself to tame and subdue into perfection;—none more so, that I know, of men now alive. Nay, in a private way, I admit to myself that here apparently is the finest poetic genius, finest possibility of such, we have got vouchsafed us in this generation, and that it will be a terrible pity if we spill it in the process of elaboration. Said genius, too, I perceive, has really grown, in all ways, since I saw it last; I hope it will continue growing, tho' the difficulties are neither few nor small!

Well, but what is the shadow side of the Picture, then? For in that too I ought to be equally honest. My friend, it is what they call “unintelligibility”! That is a fact: you are dreadfully difficult to understand; and that is really a sin. Admit the accusation: I testify to it; I found most of your Pieces too hard of interpretation, and more than one (chiefly of the short kind) I had to read as a very enigma. I did make them all out,—all with about two insignificant exceptions;—but I do not know if many readers have got so far. Consider that case; it is actually flagrant!

Now I do not mean to say the cure is easy, or the sin a mere perversity. God knows I too understand very well what it is to be “unintelligible” so-called. It is the effort of a man with very much to say, endeavouring to get it said in a not sordid or unworthy way, to men who are at home chiefly in the sordid, the prosaic, inane and unworthy. I see you pitching big crags into the dirty bottomless morass, trying to found your marble wall,—Oh, it is a tragic condition withal!— — But yet you must mend it, and alter. A writing man is here to be understood: let him lay that entirely to heart, and conform to it patiently; the sooner the better!

I do not at this point any longer forbid you verse, as probably I once did.4 I perceive it has grown to be your dialect, it comes more natural than prose;—and in prose too a man can be “unintelligible” if he like! My private notion of what is Poetry,—Oh I do hope to make you, one day, understand that; which hitherto no one will do: but it must not concern us at prest. Continue to write in verse, if you find it handier. And what more? Aye, what, what!— Well, the sum of my ideas is, If you took up some one great subject, and tasked all your powers upon it for a long while, vowing to Heaven that you would be plain to mean capacities, then—!— But I have done, done. Good be with you always, dear Browning; and high victory to sore fight! Yours ever

T. Carlyle