“Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I
I admire Elizabeth Barrett Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is strong, richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places, straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty, but also sought to speak for the silent, suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. The forty sonnets from the Portuguese evoke between their lines, the story of her courtship and secret marriage with the poet Robert Browning, one of the most celebrated literary partnerships in history.
Next to the sonnets comes her verse novel Aurora Leigh which was a bold and powerful stand against Victorian hypocrisy, and raised questions on prevailing norms of the duties of women in society, the conflict between the roles of the artist and the woman, the unexpected impact that a well meaning philanthropist’s work may have on a disturbed society, and the concepts of virtue and chastity, among other things.
“Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 1- 8.
Browning called it ‘the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered’. I read Aurora Leigh in school and remained as though in a trance through the days I read it, my mind overflowing with the lines of free verse, enchanted by the beauty of the lines and struck by the many thought-provoking questions raised through the story.
I have re-read the book several times since then, for the pleasure of revisiting lines as these:
“And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And, — glancing on my own thin, veined wrist, —
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God”
Aurora Leigh, Seventh Book.
As a poet and a woman who believed that her literary aspirations were as important as that of her suitor’s life mission, and expected her husband to support her chosen vocation, Aurora‘s voice was a pioneering one for her time, and remains relevant to the present day.
“At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets”
Aurora Leigh, First Book 844-845.
In February I made the pilgrimage to St.Marylebone Parish Church, that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. Passing Wimpole street on the way, I imagined I was tracing the footsteps of the two who must have hurried down that very road, so many decades ago. I was distracted for a few minutes by a sculptural plaque proclaiming that Charles Dickens wrotes six of his novels in that building, but I hastened on, for that day was all about the two poets.
The service was in progress when I entered the church. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married here. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read sections from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese. I like to think that they gave me their blessing. I bowed to them before I left, my heart singing with the joy of having fulfilled a beloved wish from my bucket list.