Friday, December 9, 2011
Each Friday we provide the link to the blog that is hosting a celebration of poetry around the blogosphere. At that site you can find the links to the many other blogs that are posting poems (new and old), discussions of poems, and reviews of poetry books.
Enjoy the festivities!
The host this week is Robyn Hood Black. You can visit her here at Robyn Hood Black — Children’s Author.
(Portraits of English poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
1806-1861, and Robert Browning, 1812-1889, by Thomas
Read, 1822-1872, American painter)
“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, — whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius, and there a graceful and natural end of the thing.
“Since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of the effect upon me, for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration . . .”
This letter precipitated one of the most famous of Victorian romances.
Elizabeth Barrett had just published a book of poetry to great acclaim. She was almost forty years old, unmarried, an invalid living in the home of her strict father, when this letter arrived. It was written on January 10, 1845, by Robert Browning, a poet six years her junior. “I had a letter from Browning, the poet, last night,” she wrote to a friend, “which threw me into ecstasies — Browning, the author of Paracelsus, the king of the mystics.”
The two met, fell in love, and became engaged — but eloped when her father refused to approve the marriage and disinherited her.
In the two years before they married, she wrote a series of forty-four love sonnets in the Petrarchan form as a gift to Robert. The collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese, gets its title from his pet name for her, “my little Portuguese.”
Most readers are familiar with the penultimate sonnet in the sequence, the one that asks, “How do I love thee?”
Fewer, however, have read this sonnet below from the collection. It is full of tumult. Elizabeth has trouble holding on to five letters from her beloved. The sheets of paper quiver, her hands tremble, and the letters fall to the floor. She is having just as much trouble controlling her emotions, expressing them with exclamation marks, incomplete sentences, many words of one syllable, and caesurae, or breaks, of ellipses and dashes that express the turns her feelings are taking.
SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said, — he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it! — this, . . . the paper's light . . .
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God's future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine — and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!