Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning’

Earlier Western writers used to make the claim that for a poem to be a ‘true poem’ it must admit the possibility of death.
You find this in the writing of Spanish Poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and a great many British and European poets of the 20th Century.

There are many points here that need clarification, here. The main two are – 
 -what is a ‘true poem’?

– what does ‘the possibility of death’ mean in reference to poetry?

These are both ways of valuing, of giving relevance. They are ways of putting a poem into a system of importance, immediacy. This in turn reflects a temporal need for engaging with contemporary political and cultural concerns, and for pressured expression.
Not many lived up to the injunction, of course, but the point is that it was an aspirational claim.

A ‘true poem’ was a poem that worked wholly as a competent and professional piece, as well as having the emotional and psychological impact of its subject and its parts. It was a poem that could stand by itself, beyond autobiography. What is implied here, also, that it is a poem that would have wide cultural relevance. How wide that is/was is another matter. This was still the period of Western cultural hegemony.

The ‘possibility of death’ was a way of saying that the poem addressed and also expressed wholly contemporary fears and dreads. Its competence was its ability to transcend, to go beyond, these fears and dreads, into a possibility of redemption or even calm.

– The Norse skald Egill Skallagrimsson, in Egill’s Saga, wrote a series of what he termed ‘neck verses’. (see Ian Crockatt’s The Song Weigher: complete poems of Egill Skallagrimsson, tenth century Viking and Skald (Arc, 2017).

In an earlier skirmish he had killed Erik Bloodaxe’s son. He later found himself forced to seek shelter and sanctuary with the family.
His wife demanded his death. What saved his life, so the saga goes, was his renown as a professional skald, and as such his work was highly valued. He was able to write a series of new-form verses for the occaision.
This, of course, could well be a bragging, a fiction engrandising his abilities and person.
But we read hear the valuing of the work, of putting it into a greater system of relevance than personal expression. 

Earlier generations of writers to this, called on the valuation of God, that a poem had to be worthy of addressing God. Of course, very few were, and so that failure to do so reflected the failure of mankind to live up to religion’s demands, and instead to address our basic humanity as the true one, and the calling on God or valuation through reference to God as aspirational and ultimately beyond human competence.

But this valuing concentrates expression, energises content, and captures the relationships between competence and aspiration.
Both of these are found in the Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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The first point to be made about the Sonnets from the Portuguese, is that they were not… from the Portuguese. Nor were they translations from other literatures.
Wiki tells us:
Browning proposed that she claim their source was Portuguese, probably because of her admiration for Camões and Robert’s nickname for her: “my little Portuguese”. The title is also a reference to Les Lettres Portugaises 

The title was suggested, strongly, by Robert Browning as a publication title. He had learned bitterly from his own experience. His first published book, Pauline, an emotional autobiography, had been savaged.
This is not the same as the ‘telling it slant’, of Emily Dickinson, but of deflection.

The Sonnets from the Portuguese were autobiographical. They were originally written as personal responses, private, and yet with professional competence and skill.
The title eschewed personal claims, however, and put them in the realm of public expression. As far as the chosen form, language tropes of the period, and spheres of reference allowed, thy were recognisable and accessible, of their time. They went beyond the abilities of the accepted codes and modes of expression, however, and owned their own place in the canon of majorly male writers

The series charts a growth in awareness, from a state of apparent utter dejection, spiritual or/and existential, to one of uplift, fullness, emotional renewal.

The form used is that of the Italian/Petrachan sonnet: ABBA ABBA CDCDCD.
This falls into an octave followed by sextet. If we look at Sonnet 32 we can see how this works:

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all these bonds that seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.
Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man’s love! – more like an out of tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth
To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed
A wrong note on thee. For perfect strains may float
‘Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced, –
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and dote.

The change-over from octet to sextet is seamless. The ‘turn’ takes the tone of a critique of itself, it answers objections, off-sets contrary arguments. What it does is state the case for the legitimacy of the state of mind/being, and of its depicted working-through to a place of resolution.

It may not be comfortable reading at time, especially for our own sensibilities, but the sonnets demand to be taken on their own terms.

We can read the sonnets as they are in themselves, but we wrong them not to read them as personalised expression, as autobiographical.
The self-doubt, for instance, and then the self-defamation. Why so? Are they over-stated, as a device for exploring responses to the experience?
At the time of writing, 1845-6, she was aged thirty-nine to forty, unmarried, and long an invalid, cut off from ‘society’ and shut in with few though devoted friends, an over-protective very Victorian father, and her books. Not forgetting her devoted maid. Her pet dog, Flush (who cleaned up after him?).

Her age, as well as her long illness, weighed heavily against her as a woman in the marriage mart of society. Self-doubt melded with self-blame (her favourite brother she had begged to visit her by the sea in convalesce, had drowned on his visit. For which she blamed herself).
The tone of her writing was becoming very sombre; after the hugely prolific writing phase of 1841 to 44 she was bound to hit a rocky time.
Stalled, and ill, when out of the blue came this younger writer to her door. He had not the acclaim of readers that she had just gained; he had been publishing as long, but the public did not warm to his works very readily.

And yet this lack of self-esteem in her writing was one aspect of the required ‘demure demeanour’ required of women of the period, especially women of standing. Her father was on the wealthy side of the very strict social divide.

What I am asking here, is how we now read the extremes of emotion she portrays here, in the sequence as a whole, and in this poem.
This is one of the great strengths of the writing, that she can, indeed, express that range of emotion.
It is this interiority, the closetted atmosphere, that gives authenticity, and raises the sonnets above facility, above experiments in form, language, and ‘playing the writing game’ .

The self she portrays in her writing is how she envisaged her real self. We, as outsiders, would probably see a very different person. But that vulnerable opening, admittance, to the inner self these sonnets allow, was a huge act of revelation from one so closed off, and shut away.
The self she saw was the image through which this sequence of sonnets came.

Sonnet 7

The face of all the world is changed, I think
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art, or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday
(The singing angels know) are only dear,
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

Two long sentences, joined together by the shorter central one, lines second half of seven, through to line nine. She expresses the effects of the emotions, and also discriminates between them.
Throughout the series she is constantly being overtaken by the emotions of the courtship, and also reigning herself in. She denies – not the power of the love, but her own deserving.

All her writing charts this growing into herself as a person in her writing: we hear her distinctive tones and moods through the conventions of the accepted tone, range, and subject matter, of Victorian women’s writing.

These conventions constitute an attempt to gloss over the very distinctive voices that were becoming heard in women’s writing of the period. And that glossing is itself an attitude of publishers and reviewers, part of their assumed role of tutors in sensibility, morality.
And then here was the strong current of women’s writing stirring up the calm waters of the Empire’s (sluggish?) seas.

She wrote many other sonnets around this period.
What followed was a whirlwind of emotion, and, as we see in the sonnets above, her strong hand handling the reins, of courtship, marriage, elopement, Italy, and motherhood.

Then came the great poems: Casa Guidi Windows; Aurora Leigh.

There is the question of whether we can approve psychopathology for the sake of the work. It follows a very fine line.
The character of Aurora Leigh was not an invalid as her author, but a woman exploring and using her power and position as a woman to gain self-determination. She struggled to support herself, and was willing to struggle.
The romantic gain at the end… I was unhappy with. Was it a kindness to her reader’s expectation of a kind of happy ending, a la Jane Eyre?
Is the argument that the spirit was allowed to emerge from the maimed man, when earlier the physicality of his aggressive masculinity was blinding him to his true nature?
As the generous introduction to the Wordsworth edition of Collected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Dr Sally Minogue (2015), draws to our attention Elizabeth Barrett Brownings’ used explicit breastfeeding imagery within Aurora Leigh.
She had not the Victorian physical fastidiousness that we have come to expect of the era.

She ended her sequence:

Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers,
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet there’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy! – take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.

The self-doubt is still there, but meliorated by the certainty of being wholly loved.
I admit to being rather taken with all the flowers. The two named, her own, are eglantine/honeysuckle, and Ivy. In Victorian flower language we have: ‘generous and devoted affection’, and ‘Fidelity. Marriage’ (see https://fiveminutehistory.com/the-language-of-flowers-the-secret-victorian-code-of-love/).

Her own shaded and shadowy self, combined with the physically blinded, aggressive male of Aurora Leigh: all failed people? Yet these were the characters also of Robert Brownings ‘dramas’. These can be read as attempts to round out the empire-builders and hugely successful characters of Victorian expansionism. The reality behind the images; the ugly inside of the statues.
The great foundations of Western thought are found wanting in Robert Browning’s poems. If not ‘found wanting’, then too capable of abuse. The casuistry of his characters shows a great wasting of talents, of knowledge, education, for a selfishness, a littleness of mind.

Without the aspiration, the struggle for expression, for wholeness, the poems would appear sentimental, vapid, an example of a facility with language.
Did she really mean death when she wrote of it?
There are many kinds of death; I think we can safely say she felt she was dying inside. To dismiss that as a personal crisis-experience would be a terrible arrogance.


To come back to the Sonnets: the discovery of oneself as loved by another, though, not out of duty, but romantically, in the body, and wholly, is all expressed in this sequence.
It is no small thing.
For that the sonnets won fame, were revered highly, and deserve our appreciation still.

Casa Guidi Windows, A Poem in Two Parts. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. ISBN: 9781517563943
https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/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.

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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 –
https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Casa+Guidi+Firenze/@43.7649241,11.2456479,17z/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.

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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.

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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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning) 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.
https://www.britannica.com/topic/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