Posts Tagged ‘19th century poetry’

Casa Guidi Windows, A Poem in Two Parts. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ISBN: 9781517563943

We may now, and at long last, be arriving at the time for the proper appraisal and appreciation of the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

She was a phenomenal writer, astute, very knowledgable, and very much her own person. The writing is consummate. At one point she was under consideration as the new Poet Laureate, upon the death of William Wordsworth.


The Casa Guidi Windows is a long two-part poem, set in Florence in 1848/9 to 50, at the time of the Risorgimento.
The work begins with hearing a child’s voice singing outside her window.
What does he sing, because it would have to be a he?
He sings O bella liberta. O bella!
And instantly the writer is caught up in the tumulus moment of the outpouring of hope and enthusiasm for the future that spread through Florence and parts of Italy at the time.
The writer is transported by the reunification spirit, and takes the reader on a reeling ride through the passionate cause and its expressions, the carnival atmosphere.

It continues ‘...on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
Of such a nimble bird...’
Firstly we have here the little child fore-fronting the work, figuring the innocent rightness of the cause. There is also the deeper image of a that of a choir boy here, innocent and yet fervent.

I wrote above, it would have to be a he. But not necessarily. Conventions of the time would make the figure male – and so when Robert Browning published Pippa Passes (1841) he was indeed breaking the mould. Here was another child, singing beneath windows. And this child’s innocence revealed the iniquities of time and place as she passed from dwelling to dwelling on New Year’s Day.
(What also is interesting here is that this poem was set in Asolo, Veneta. This is where their son Edward. ‘Pen’, later retired to, and was buried.)

There is also in this child under the windows the Rousseau-esque child of nature.
And also the traditional image of the skylark rising into the sky, its passion and song transporting it into higher realms. Is this Shelley’s Blithe Spirit?

It is as though this great movement of the people was ‘ordained’, or if not that, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had far too much respect for intelligence to fall for that, it was that a spirit was moving the people beyond and out i.e. they are transported, of their ordinary lives.
The abstractions of ‘liberty,’ ‘freedom’, though, how realisable in human terms were they then?
Are they now?

Then comes the writer’s martialling of Florence’s luminaries, from Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, to Renaissance painters, sculptors, thinkers, writers, the Medici down to Savonarola, to Galileo and on.

If you search out her apartment at the time: Casa Guide, in Florence – and I urge that you do so –,11.2456479,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x132a51546a37a4eb:0x300cb57880079df2!8m2!3d43.7649241!4d11.2478366

you will see her first floor apartment is at a meeting of ways: Piazza de’ Pitti, Via Maggio, Via Mazzetta, Via Romana. And how very narrow all those roads and streets are!
She writes of both herself and Robert Browning watching the marches from their window, the banners, the ordered processions.
If you do use the map, the Casa Guidi is not as shown, but in the Piazza S Felice, next door to Mesticheria Ferramenta Casalinghi: the domed doorway with their names over the top.

So let’s look at that term Risorgimento. The whole work is suffused with references, both old and contemporary. And very few of them are now part of our general knowledge. At her time, how informed her readership was!
No internet, no social media, TV, radio, records… just journals and news paper reports. And schooling.
And here is one area of interest with both Robert and Elizabeth Moulton-Barret (her full unmarried name): both were tutor-taught. That, and with their own voracious reading. That reading could be wayward at times, but it was wide, and deep into character and subject.
We read here, in mid 1800s, a revealed thirst for psychological knowledge, for the conditions and means of what it is and demands, being human in their time.

There is a huge area of knowledge she references here that few readers of our time could possibly access. We are in need of a good research, and notes to the poems. We, with Google at our finger-tips.
What? You mean it is not infallible?
The earlier Wordsworth edition (1994) of the Collected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning does seem a fuller, more complete collection, and includes the Casa Guidi Windows. The latter, 2015 edition, with introduction by Dr Sally Minogue, does not; though it does does carry notes to the poems, and has a good and useful Introduction.

So, where were we with the poem? Part One is full of the enthusiasm of the events, refracted through meditations on happenings, characters, and assessments of their qualities.
Historically it was the period that Pope Pius’ constitution for the Papal States added to the weakened position of the French King Louis Phillipe. In the poem we see and hear the great crowds, orders of society, pass the windows to cheer his eminence, Pope Pius.

In Part Two she deals with the failure of the movement, for an Italy still only part free of Austrian claim. In Part Two we come to her contemporary Duke of Tuscany, Grand Duke Leopold: the buck stopped there, and with King Louis Phillipe. Even Pope Pius is under scrutiny; he was no longer the reformer, and his concerns for his flock found wanting.


The great strength in the piece, I find, is her ability to express that hope and enthusiasm as fully as her position allowed: invalid, foreigner, comparatively affluent, educated, but also a mother, with newborn baby.
And also to be able to examine and also express the feelings of loss in its failure.
To explore that hope and the ramifications of the hope for Italy of the time, and then also to take on the failure of the venture, the failure of those hopes. To express that, also – the passion and the sorrow.
Do not get me wrong, this is not a heart-wrench work, it is considered, factual at times, meditative, enthusiastic… it ranges over so many emotions and states of mind.

It is also a very literary piece.
Many contemporaries will find this not to their taste. It is not written for the voice, but for the silent reading. This allows its language greater scope.
The whole poem is structured carefully in iambic pentameter, with all the iambic licences of catalepsis etc. The poem is rigorously rhymed, but this does not read as external ornament because she positions her end rhymes just so that the rhymes express the salient terms used to rhyme.
Writing this way entails occasional juggling of line structure; and the period’s writing mores allow the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’, archaisms we now draw a breath at. The writing structure entails concentrated expression; at times it requires re-reading to get the meaning.
For myself, I love the slight changing of writing positions this produces. It gives a greater richness to the writing. It appears many-facetted.

It is end-rhymed throughout, ABABACDCDCD etc. Writing for rhyme like this allows the writer to tweak a line, a thought, and so we find that instead of following through descriptions we explore qualities.

She writes of,
… all images
Men set between themselves and the actual wrong,
To catch the weight of pity, meet the stress
Of conscience, – since ‘t is easier to gaze long
On sad masks and mournful effigies
Than on real, live, weak creatures crushed by strong.

In a TV interview Seamus Heaney commented on his own rhyme-use, saying that writing to rhyme ‘develops the thought‘.

So, what really went wrong with the great surge of the Risorgimento? She writes:

Record that gain, Mazzini – Yes, but first
Set down thy people’s faults; set down the want
Of soul-conviction; set down aims dispersed.
And incoherent means, and valour scant
Because of scanty faith, and schisms accursed
That wrench the brother-hearts from covenant
With freedom and each other.

This might just as well be every political cause.
The People.
Yes, but the Leaders never really know what The People want, because what they want is so diverse (witness the reasoning of the gilet jaunes, for one), and what the Leaders want so narrow that none can live there.
Some have called this a Political Poem, with all the dubious connotations of that description. But it is more than that, and she aimed for more than that.
She aimed for a poem about humanity.


In her Advertisement To The First Edition, she wrote that she, the writer, takes shame upon herself for having believed, like a woman, some royal oaths, and lost sight of the probable consequences of some obvious popular defects.
To be fallible, get things wrong sometimes, to not be afraid to show one’s vulnerabilities, is to be human, complex, inconsistent-but-hoping-for-consistency, is to aspire to wholeness.

The like a woman is there to disarm, and as such is a considered proto-marketing device. She was wholly aware of her readership.

Wiki ( writes:

In the correspondence Barrett Browning kept with the Reverend William Merry from 1843 to 1844 on predestination and salvation by works, she identifies herself as a Congregationalist: “I am not a Baptist — but a Congregational Christian, — in the holding of my private opinions.” 

The Congretationalists of her time held very interesting views on self improvement:

the picture of the philistine Dissenters drawn by the poet and critic Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) contains a measure of truth, it underestimates the zeal for self-improvement and the desire for a richer life that existed in Victorian Congregationalism.

That ‘richer life‘ is written out here in Casa Guidi Windows, in the developments of her thoughts and ideas.

In her publication history the Casa Guidi Windows follows her Sonnets From The Portuguese, and is followed by the masterpiece, monumental, Aurora Leigh.

And yet, reading the Sonnets From The Portuguese, now, we get a sense, especially in those early sonnets, that she had come to some kind of dark place with no way out: leaning on her gravestone, waiting; could see no future.
The meeting with Robert Browning stirred her, helped break the dead-lock.
She was a woman of great integrity.

Read generously, I say; read to appreciate, explore, understand.
Read slowly; savour her language, her sensibility.
Read to tune-in to the writing, to her concerns, the emotional and intellectual landscapes she opens to us.
Meet with her here, in her work.

That is really the best gift she has for us, and we, in our turn and time, for her.

You may also like:
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Fiona Sampson. Publisher : Profile Books; Main edition.
ISBN-10 : 1788162072


W E Henley is mostly known as one of a group of writers: poets of the 1890s. Straight-away we have notions of decadence, absinthe, Oscar Wilde, of Aubrey Beardsley, of Art for Arts’ sake.
Henley was at his best as a writer of particulars, of London; not so much the opium fume of decadence’s London Particular, but its populace, impressions of place.

He is now mostly known for his poem INVICTUS, as quoted by Barack Obama, but most notably by Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island:

I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The point here is that Henley was not just parroting some Latin Stoic from centuries ago, but knew what he was writing about.
At the age of twelve Henley was diagnosed with TB; three years’ later he lost his left leg below the knee. This was also the time of his father’s death, which brought the creditors knocking.

William Ernest Henley was born in 1849, in Gloucester. He died in London, 1903. As you can guess from the dates TB took its toll on his health. There was another period of hospitalisation as his right foot was marked for amputation as well; Henley fought back: he knew of a surgeon etc. The foot was saved, but the outcome uneven. Analgesia and anesthetics involved employed ether by this period, and the role of bacteria in disease was making great strides. Hospitalisation was in Edinburgh; from there he sent his writing off and came to the attention of a thriving writing community.

From this period, and working as a journalist then editor in London, come a remarkable series of poems, portraits of hospital staff: In Hospital, published in 1875.

He became an intimate of many writers of the period, and reciprocal acknowledgement of the debt of friendship, to use a phrase, can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson using Henley for the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Large of frame, strong personality, booming laugh – and the crutch.

He married; they had a daughter; she was ill through her short childhood, and died aged five. J M Barrie adopted her pet phrase for him for his chief character in Peter Pan: Wendy.

We see Henley’s work used again as the title of a Joe Orton play from 1964, The Ruffian on the Stair from his poem:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

Wormwoodiana Blogspot comments on Henley’s deliberate anti-decadence position,  and this is what we see above. Some of his work, however, found a home in their collections.
Henley’s admission into the literary world was an admission into London life: the two were one; what the publishers would accept were London subjects. And so the nation were fed the London choice. There was a proliferation of publications on London life – we see titles like London Types, London Nights, London Visions, Fleet Street Ecologues etc. In Symons’ Paris was an accepted equivalent. There was also a growing interest, in various forms, in people as subject matter. The Socialist ideals along with just a hint of Women’s Suffrage filtered through into literature.

Penguin Classics brought out a wide selection of poetry from the 1890s, called… Poetry of the 1890s.
First published in 1970, the book was reprinted in 1997. It carries a good selection of Henley work from his two major collections, In Hospital, and London Voluntaries (in Poems 1898).

His work can be bracing, particular his hospital portraits, but occasionally falls back on arch diction. His forms verge on free verse, and there the poems stand up well; at other times he allows rhyme scheme to dictate too often:


Down through the ancient Strand
The spirit of October, mild and boon
And sauntering, takes his way
This golden end of afternoon,
As though the corn stood yellow in all the land
And the ripe apples dropped to harvest moon.

Lo! The round sun, half-down the western slope –
Seen as along an unglazed telescope –
Gifting the long, lean, lanky street
And its abounding confluences of being
With aspects generous and bland.

Echoes of Wordsworth perhaps, on Westminster Bridge; and also imagery for Pound’s Metro? And Eliot?

If we read on, we hear perhaps William Blake, taking a breath of London air:

And even the roar
of the strong streams of toil, that pause and pour
Eastward and westward, sounds suffused –
Seems as it were bemused
And blurred, and like the speech


I always go back to the portraits, though:


Some three, or five, or seven and thirty years;
A Roman nose; a dimpling double-chin;
Dark eyes, and shy that, ignorant of sin,
Are yet acquainted, it would seem, with tears….
Her plain print gown, prim cap, and bright steel chain
Look out of place on her, and I remain
Absorbed in her, as in a pleasant mystery.
‘Do you like nursing?’ ‘Yes, Sir, very much.’
Somehow, I rather think she has a history.



Blue-eyed and bright of face, but waning fast
I view her as she enters, day by day,
As a sweet sunset almost overpast
She talks of BEETHOVEN; frowns disapprobation
At BALZAC’s  name, sighs it at ‘poor GEORGE SAND’S’;
Speaks Latin with a right accentuation;
And gives at need (as one who understands)
Draught, counsel, diagnosis, exhortation.

Is it me, or does anyone else hear Sir John Betjeman in that last one? Not just the title, which is very him, but also the tone. The tone, though, I find here has more warmth, and less of the baffled reserve, the edge of playful caricature of Betjeman. Henley seems genuinely interested in these characters as not just women, nurses, but as people in their own right. These poems catch the social and gender status of their subjects. At this period nurses, like school teachers and women in most areas of employ had to remain single, unmarried. And so we have the, to me slightly dubious, image of:

…… but waning fast
Into the sere of virginal decay


Once again the form constrains him from fuller exploration: the anecdotal and succinct phrasing of the sonnet he uses is not broken open to allow the people to breath fully.

The form is all, though, here. This was Henley’s disciplined self battling through illness, his consolidated fight against the black cloaked vampire of tuberculosis. Looking outwards, resisting the pull inwards to ennui and death.

One of Henley’s projects was to bring the language of the street into the closetted world of verse; his rhythms and diction pushed at the door to let in some air.
Another of his projects was to compile a Dictionary of Slang, which was a successful venture. Villon was translated with its usage. We can see his street lingo work pay off in MADAM LIFE.

If, like me,though,you are still wondering at those earlier pejorative phrases, the mocking tone, in MADAM LIFE then it’s worth another look. Why ‘piece’? And then why ‘Madam’ – it has the suggestions of ‘madame’, proprietor of a brothel. The poem ends:

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

Death and Life in cahoots against you! Like the gangster and his moll; she entraps you, he finishes the job. Henley’s vision of life was no cosy Victorian/late Victorian view of upright and honest males and Dickensian maidenliness. I don’t wish to build too much on one lyric, but the bracing and grim humour is revivifying to what he saw as a depleted and aesthete period.


Golden, all golden! In a golden glory
Long-lapsing down a golden coasted sky,
The day not dies but seems
Dispersed in whafts and drifts of gold…..

The man could praise and rhapsodise, recognise the wonder of the moment, like the best.