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".


  1. Lol, I heard the story about how confusing Sordello was. I actually read Porphyria's Lover today and found it rather disturbing, as the beginning sounded so sweet and placidly Victorian.

    But it's true that Browning can be rather cryptic and hard to digest. Goodness knows I've tried to tackle him and failed to do so. I think Elizabeth Barrett Browning's works are clearer and more poetic, though at dramatic monologue Mr Browning triumphs over his wife. Did you know that when Wordsworth died they were thinking of appointing her as Poet Laureate? And that she and Christina Rossetti were both contenders for best English poetess? I've got this book you might want to check out on the Pre-Raphaelites, it's called The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe. Excuse this nerdy rant into poets, I am probably spamming your page. :P

  2. Yes, Browning is good at disturbing. I'll have to compare them more closely, but I think Porphyria's lover might show signs of manic depression or some other mental disorder, while the Duke in My Last Duchess reveals his treachery so unconsciously that I actually find him more sinister.

    I dearly love Elizabeth too, though (as I briefly tried to explain in the post) something has attracted me to Robert and for once I'm more familiar with a male artist than a female.

    Yes, I did know they were thinking of EBB for laureate. Do you know what made them give it up? One reason they considered her was that they thought a woman would be good, with Queen Victoria on the throne, and they also thought they'd be getting two for the price of one. (They, eh?)

    I think I might like Christina Rossetti even more than EBB. (Maybe I'm a little prejudiced by this sonnet sequence where she basically says she's writing the sonnets Elizabeth might have written if she had NOT been able to marry Robert and they are so full of longing. "The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness" is my favorite poem at the moment.)

    Thanks so much for mentioning the book by Dinah Roe! I'll definitely try to get that and her book(s) on Christina. There is a shameful paucity of works on her, imo.

    Looks like my nerdy rant on poets got longer than yours. ;) As you see, such things are my delight, so no need to apologize. (Will reply to your other comment later.)

  3. You've got me interested in Robert Browning. What would you recommend a beginner to start with? As you can guess, I love the lyrical and the poetically epic.

    I don't know why they didn't make EBB poet laureate. I don't think it was merely gender bias, because she was well-regarded (in fact, she was considered more intellectual and topical than Tennyson, who was more popular). I think the reason Tennyson was given the laureateship was that Queen Victoria loved In Memoriam so much because it reminded her of her late husband. She actually asked Tennyson to come to visit her. And before Prince Albert died, he went all the way to visit Tennyson, most unexpectedly. So it was more or a royal preference really. Also, the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was the former best friend of Arthur Hallam, and In Memoriam touched him deeply. I got this from Tennyson's biography by Robert Bernard Martin, a pretty good place to start. But I advise you only to get the book if it's on sale, because biographies can be expensive.

    I have only studied one poem seriously by Christina Rossetti, and it's A Birthday. But overall I find her style more fluid and refreshing than EBB, though EBB is more stately. It's probably because EBB knew the classics and was early Victorian (more clunky) and Christina was a late Victorian (simpler and straightforward). But for someone so fluid and simple, Christina can be rather disturbing. Actually she was in love with a man, Charles Cayley, who wanted to marry her, but she refused him because he was an agnostic and she was very religious. They went on loving each other for the rest of their lives. I often wonder what might have happened to the tone of her poems if she had married him.

  4. A few of the poems I link to here are good for beginners. "My Last Duchess" is probably his most famous and it's short. Have you read "Middlemarch"? The relationship between Andrea del Sarto (in the eponymous poem) and his wife reminds me of Tertius Lydgate and Rosamund.

    But I'd really recommend "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" for you. I was agape when I first read it, because while it's a monologue, it's highly descriptive and gothic, which is unusual for Browning. "Pauline" is a long poem, but it has something to do with Shelley, and is probably more Romantic than some of the monologues - you might want to read excerpts from that.

    I didn't know all that about Victoria, Gladstone and Tennyson; very interesting. I'll add the Tennyson bio to my TBR list.

    How do you like "A Birthday"? I adore it - it's so gushing, yet so sensual, so natural and singing, yet with such exquisite similes.

    Are you very familiar with EBB? I certainly love the Sonnets fro the Portuguese, "He Giveth His Beloved Sleep", etc. As you say, she knew the classics. I once ploughed through her essay on the Greek Christian poets, and all I can remember from it is the quote that originally interested me in it. (lol) From what I've heard, she was practically a child prodigy in intellect.

    Christina Rossetti was also engaged to a man who turned Roman Catholic. I don't know for sure which involvement influenced her poems more. (In her incredible "A Sonnet of Sonnets" sequence, the lover seems to share her love for God.) It's interesting that people are always trying to pinpoint who was Emily Dickinson's "master" and "man of noon", and that might have been a literary conceit for her. Actually, it's that quality of intense longing in Christina Rossetti's poems that make me love her, so I'm selfishly glad she didn't marry Cayley (or Collinson); I don't think she would have been the same poet.

  5. Yup, I've read most of Middlemarch. Haven't read Will's experiences much but have a rough idea of what happens next.

    I like A Birthday for its images, though it is not typical Christina Rossetti. I think in depth I prefer her other poems. She makes poems pleasant to be sung or read aloud, not in an epic way but easy on the ear.

    I wouldn't say I'm familiar with EBB though I do own a book of her poems. I've read Sonnets of the Portuguese, part of Lady Geraldine's Courtship.

    Collinsons was a painter and Christina's first love. Even during their engagement they weren't so affectionate and she felt uneasy with his family. In the end they broke it off and it hurt, even though they could no longer sympathise. This may have inspired her sad poetry. Cayley was a bigger success. They remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives and wrote poems to each other. Cayley's and her temperaments suited, unlike Collinsons who could be a little shallow. He was actually a poor scholar, but her brother William offered to help pay for their household expenses. Still she refused to marry Cayley, and William thought it was too much of her to protest against Cayley's lack of faith. (William was an agnostic as well). With Cayley it is likely her poems were less intensely sad though she still suffered from the loneliness of her single state. Unlike Collinsons, whom she stopped contacting, she and Cayley wrote to each other and met up even after the refusal. When he died he left her his manuscripts, and his family knew and understood how much he appreciated her. Probably her poetry would have been less intense, but I feel she would have been happier had she married him.

    1. I'd never even heard of Lady Geraldine's courtship till I came across the quote about Browning that I used in the other post about him. I'm assuming it's long from what you said. I'll go with Aurora Leigh first.

      Which other poems of Christina Rossetti's do you especially like?

      Wow. You know so much about Christina Rossetti and her relationships! Did you learn all this from Dinah Roe's book? I'm going to have to get an Amazon account to order it.

      I've just always assumed that Collinsons was a big influence because of the sonnet sequence I mentioned, in which she speaks of her lover's love for God and prefaces it with talking about how such a sequence might have been written by a Vaudois in love with a Catholic.

  6. Yup, Lady Geraldine's Courtship is fairly long. But not as long as Aurora Leigh! But the latter is deeper.

    My favourite Rossettis would be "Remember me when I am gone away" - the rhythm is really delicious. And A Better Resurrection. I think it's like a contrast with A Birthday. I'm no expert on her but most of what I know is from Dinah Roe's book. I have a strange tendency of reading someone's biography before understanding their work. I still have an unread Ruskin biography. lol. But I'm in the midst of writing a novel set in the 19th century and it helps to get the feel of someone living back then.

    Hmm, I think you're right about Collinson, since he became a Catholic. It's ironic these passionate poems were written about him, not the real love of her life, Cayley, but I often think poets are most passionate in their twenties. Once past thirty they are more sober and often less inspired. Now I'm 20 I feel I don't write with the same power as I did at age 18.

    We keep on writing long posts on each other's blogs. We really ought to have a jolly good chat one day. :) Hope you've settled down in your new house.

    1. I blush to be replying over two weeks late, but the move has been rather stressful and erratic.

      Aurora Leigh - one of those works I've been intending to read for ages and which I'm always hearing more wonderful things about. I saw it was on your list to read this year too. We'll have to compare notes.

      I love Remember Me too - especially the line "but if the darkness and corruption leave a vestige of the thoughts that once I had..." You said it: the rythhm is delicious. I just reread A Better Resurrection. Wow.

      Interesting thoughts on age. Not to read too much into the minds of fictional characters or their authors, but I have to wonder what an older Jane Eyre might have been like and point out Jane Austen's propensity for older heroines.

      Oh, are you only 20? You're pretty impressively erudite for your age yourself.

      I also wonder if Rossetti wasn't in a way creating the great love story out of Collinson that worked with her religious devotion and imaginative personality. There has been endless speculation on who Emily Dickinson's master was, yet a book I recently read on her (by Lyndall Gordon) argued that she created an imaginary framework for her poetry.

      Yes, we'll have to chat more. I'd enjoy hearing about your novel. ;)

  7. I doubt we could have had an older Jane Eyre - it was the result of Charlotte's youth, and later on she didn't find Jane Eyre as good as her later works. Besides Charlotte died young which leaves us to wonder what Jane might have been. Jane as we know her would have been like Charlotte in her twenties, but were we to know Charlotte in her thirties she would not be Jane Eyre. Charlotte was simple, unsophisticated, passionate - and so her heroines were young as she was in heart. Besides the Victorians liked young heroines. I think Jane Austen chose older heroines because you couldn't have a level-headed rational heroine at age 19 and carry it off well. To gather that social understanding and that deeper reflection on human matters the character should be at least in their twenties. I'm sure in her teens Jane Austen was not as well-thought as she was in her thirties - certainly she had not the fiery Bronte power. Anne Elliot could never have been younger than twenty.

    I'm actually 20 going on 21 and in university. I certainly wasn't as erudite as you were at age 18. I sometimes think coming to the UK has sparked my literary interests - you can get so many good classics and biographies here. And being a foreigner means I actually get to appreciate the Victorian era better. Sometimes I wonder if I should have studied English literature at uni, but then I haven't much interest in mediaeval literature, or anything after the Edwardian era.

    It's possible Emily Dickinson's master was imaginary - love poetry is very nice to write, even when you're not in love. And Wordsworth's Lucy poems may not even be based on a real person - and even if they were they were an idealised portrait. The way I see it, Lucy embodies Wordsworth's Rousseauan ideals and the Romantic era. Take it further and you may think Lucy is based on Wordsworth himself. It's even possible Emily Dickinson was in love briefly, fell out of love, and then revisited the happy times of enchantment later on in her poems. Love is good inspiration - and when you don't feel it, you have to return to the past to be inspired. It is nice to pretend you're still in love - and it's possible that is what she did. I think Christina did that - even though she must have known Collinson wasn't suited to her - he was her muse.

    Have you read Lyndall Gordon's biography of Charlotte Bronte? It gives a new dimension we don't see in other biographers though it is not very long.

    Yes, we should chat someday. I should be finding out how to put a chatbox on my blog, lol, instead of rambling on.

  8. I pretty much agree with all your thoughts on an older Jane Eyre. I guess Charlotte was 31 when JE was published (was it written the same year?), still mourning Heger and also kept in her passionate youth through all those years of devotion to Angria and the life of the imagination.

    Ha, actually Jane Austen's most "level-headed, rational heroine" is exactly 19, but her passionate sister is 17. Anne Eliot at 27 is the age Marianne Dashwood had declared could "never hope to inspire love" again. :)

    Really, 20 is only two years older than me, plus you also know tremendous amounts about science. I.e., I think you're pretty amazing! So where are you originally from, if I may ask?

    I don't think I've ever believed Wordsworth's Lucy was based on a real person, but I need to read Rousseau to learn more about their significance. Arguably there's a good deal of self-love in writing love-poetry and creating "masters" and renunciatory stories, like Dickinson's and Rossetti's; but I understand it, because it's a great creative act and (to go slightly feminist) grants power and autonomy.

    No, I haven't read Lyndall Gordon's bio of CB. I do have it on my list of Bronte-related books to read. I've only read Rebecca Fraser's, which I remember finding absorbing and exciting back when I had just discovered CB.

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