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Friday, December 9, 2011

My Letters!

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.



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!


Ruth said...

Beautiful. I love how those sonnets bring a whole world to life.

jama said...

You're right -- I wasn't familiar with that particular sonnet. Wonderful! I do enjoy learning more about their great romance. Sigh . . .

Tara said...

This one was unfamilar to me as well, but I enjoyed it giddy happiness so much!

Carlie said...

I have to confess that although I knew about the series of sonnets between these two and the fact that they were deeply in love...I did NOT know that they met through letters, that Elizabeth was an invalid or that they had to elope. How incredibly romantic! Makes the sonnet you shared even more tremulous and laden.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thank you, Maria, for the unfamiliar sonnet and the deeper insight into this famous poetic couple's courtship!

Linda at teacherdance said...

Thank you for doing some background explaining, too! I think that the feelings must have been so heightened, and now that she's heard those words... If only we really knew!

Tabatha said...

That is the most breathless sonnet ever! Have you read the book that inspired Robert to write her?

Jeannine Atkins said...

I'm writing about the nineteenth century, but with not nearly so much romance. Thanks for bringing this into my world!

maria horvath said...

I am so happy to see from the comments that we all agree this sonnet is especially romantic. It is my very favorite of Elizabeth's sonnets.

Tabatha, you asked if I have read the book of poems that started it all.

When I was in my teens, I became interested in nineteenth-century literature. It began with the novels of Jane Austen, then went on to the works of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens, the Brontës (except “Wuthering Heights” — much too gothic for me), Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, Mary Russell Mitford, and George Eliot.

But it was the poetry that really held me, the verses of the Romantics like Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, John Clare, and Byron, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. We had studied the Brownings in class, of course, but those were their quieter poems.

And then I picked up a tattered copy of “The World’s Great Letters: From Ancient Days to Our Own Time” and read Robert Browning’s initial fan letter. I had to read Elizabeth’s original poems.

Unfortunately, the collection that Robert was responding to is skillfully written but very Victorian, old-fashioned to our ears. It didn’t impress me. But I went on to parts of “Aurora Leigh” and to the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and was hooked. Still am.

Funny thing, though. For some reason shortly thereafter, I left Romance behind and searched for Reality in the form of mystery novels, by European writers like the Belgian Georges Simenon, the Dutch Nicholas Freeling, the Swedish Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and the English G. K. Chesterton and his Father Brown.

Kerry Aradhya said...

I had so much fun learning about these two poets from your post. It's always nice to know more about the context in which people are writing. And the sonnet is beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

Susan T. said...

Robert Browning, fan boy. I love it. I've really enjoyed books of poets' letters in the past (like Elizabeth Bishop's), but have never read the Brownings' correspondence. You've given me an idea...