There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Saturday, 5 May 2012

A Letter to Robert Browning on his 200th Birthday

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, XLIII )

Dear Mr. Browning,

I don't pretend to understand you perfectly. At the moment I can't remember if "Sordello" is a man, a city or a book. But I do want to count a few of the ways I love you.

I first became especially interested in you over a year ago during a time of discouragement and depression. Have you had a chance to read George Eliot's Armgart? Well, like Armgart, my sense of self became intertwined with my singing voice, and when I thought my voice might not amount to anything, I became depressed. But a line from your poem about "Andrea del Sarto" ("the faultless painter" who has essentially stolen money from his patron to satisfy his worldly wife) kept ringing in my mind, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" I read the whole monologue and the truths the painter expresses out of his pain and failure came to be a part of how I view art and ambition.

In this world, who can do a thing, will not;
And who would do it, cannot, I perceive:
Yet the will's somewhat--somewhat, too, the power--
And thus we half-men struggle.

In "Rabbi Ben Ezra" too you helped me recognize the presence of hope in apparent failure. When I'm discouraged and questioning the worth of my life and struggles, when I'm longing to choose the easy path, I remember lines like these:

Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!

For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale.

Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.

So, you see, I'm easily discouraged by myself, but there you are, loudly proclaiming through various characters what G. K. Chesterton saw as your first great theory, "the hope which lies in the imperfection of man." Perhaps your wife put it just as well in her most famous sonnet, noting that the soul reaches its greatest depths and heights when feeling the impossibility of ever becoming what it was created to be.

There are other things I love about you too. I love that in times when the foundations of English society were being challenged, when Tennyson was crying out in agony that he was "in infant crying for the light," you were declaring that you "prize[d] the doubt" and using that doubt as the basis for a vigorous faith that made you "ever a fighter".

I love your sense of fun, even when it may have a tragic lining. Someday, like the little American boy, I'll visit London and the "nabby where the man is ded that wrote the Pied Piper [sic]."

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Mr. Browning, you're a part of my life now. Yesterday as I recited My Last Duchess in the shower, my mother was afraid I was listening or talking to some modern device which would electrocute me. She really should have been afraid of the sinister character of the duke, revealed so subtly that every new reading gives a greater appreciation of your masterful art.

You've given me laughter, rhymes to run up and down the corridors of my mind, comfort in pain, rebukes in self-pity, faith in doubt, and countless sources of intellectual stimulation. A girl couldn't ask for much more.


Sarah (aka Lit~Lass)

P.S. I hope you know what 'links' are, in case, after the passage of so many years, you're left saying, "I can't remember me own verses".