Tagged: Elizabeth Barret Browning

Art is much, but Love is more: The Brownings

I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/09/25/robert-browning-i-love-you/

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 Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and 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 suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.

I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. 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 there. 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 from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.

Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)

I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.

AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Browning

“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.

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We must cultivate our garden

I remember reading Aurora Leigh as a student. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the long prose poem and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the exhilaration of taking risks and playing with their lives, the obstacles they face from the world that turns out to be quite different from what it seemed, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

It seems unbelievable that a hundred and fifty years after the book was written, in this enlightened and modern world, most of us still essentially remain the same, making the same assumptions and presumptions with the idealisms of early youth and later realising that the wise people born before us were so right, so true in most of the things that they said.

Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)

Art is heaven, but Love is God, said Elizabeth Browning. I hope that she is now at peace in her heaven with her God, reciting her sonnets to her beloved Robert.

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Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality

Remembering Aurora Leigh

I remember reading Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning as a very young student. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the long prose poem and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists Aurora and her cousin Romney go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the exhilaration of taking risks and playing with their lives, the obstacles they face from the world that turns out to be quite different from what it seemed, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.

It seems unbelievable that a hundred and fifty years after the book was written, in this enlightened and modern world, most of us still essentially remain the same, making the same assumptions and presumptions with the idealisms of early youth and later realising that the wise people born before us were so right, so true in most of the things that they said.

Art is heaven, but Love is God, said Elizabeth Browning. I hope that she is now at peace in her heaven with her God, reciting her sonnets to her beloved Robert.