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’.
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.
“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems very low.”
I had long given up all hope of ever finding the perfect man when I finally met him. He told me in gentle, erudite tones that he found ‘re-reading Muriel Spark to be pure gold’.
I murmured that I adored Dame Muriel, trying to control my eyelashes that fluttered as they drank him in. With tired face and messy hair, he was no Rupert Brooke. But he had the widest smile, kindest expression and gentlest voice as made mundane pleasantries sound like poems. Every glance, every gesture, his every word was pure gold.
I wished myself six years back in time when we might have walked into each other on a cold winter morning in another, my part of the world. I wanted to walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell, listening to the birds and talking about Dame Muriel’s fiction – the possibilities bloomed in a vision of pure gold.
I felt neither regret at parting from him, nor longing to turn back once, though I spied him from the corner of my eye and thought that he looked like an angel in a crumpled cerulean shirt, as our eyes met inadvertently for a fraction of a second before I turned away. I had lived a lifetime within those few minutes of pure gold.
He vanished from my thoughts as I talked with my friend afterwards. But later as I walked by the Cherwell, he beamed at me from the dappled autumn sunlight, and I heard him in the whispers of the breeze that caressed my face. Imprints on the mind and heart, impressions of pure gold.
By the banks of the Cherwell, I sat down and wept, more out of joy for having seen him than because I knew that I would never see him again. Those moments were akin to the joy that descends upon a girl when she tries out a diamond tiara that she can ill afford to buy. But those moments were enough, for they were pure gold.
There is always the next life, as my friend Millie would say. In my next life perhaps, on a joyous spring or balmy summer day, I will walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell with the birds singing to us as we talk about the novels of Dame Muriel. From across time and space, I can see that those moments, all of them will be pure gold.
A number of similarities can be seen between the concepts, rituals, and the gods and goddesses of pagans across the world. This beautiful song from the band Faun depicting the Beltane festival shows a priestess conducting the marriage of the god Cernunnos with the triple crescent goddess, a ritual that marks the beginning of springtime which the pagans celebrate with maypole dancing and bonfires. The union of Cernunnos and the mother goddess symbolizes the renewal of life in spring.
There are theories speculating that Cernunnos is Pashupati – the Lord of the Animals, one of the forms of the God Shiva, and that the triple crescent Goddess who is sometimes associated with Lilith is Lalitha Tripurasundari, a form of the mother Goddess Parvati who is worshipped in many temples across India in all three forms: as maiden, mother, and crone. The costume of Cernunnos in the song above is strikingly evocative of the way Shiva is portrayed in Indian iconography. Shiva and Parvati are considered to be allegories for consciousness and energy, with their union depicted as a divine dance which is the basis of all creation.
While there are many theories which hypothesize on how and why the pagan Gods and Goddesses around the world are so similar, more than anything else they seem to imply that we are all interconnected. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, as the Upanishads say. We are all brothers, and the world is a family.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage
Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.
Metapoems are almost as alluring as metafiction. Perhaps even more, considering that poetry is said to be the purest of all art-forms.
“I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
More than once I have tried to record the sounds of birds singing on a spring dawn. Most often I have tried this while sitting in a tiny college room behind my beloved Banbury road. But each time, the recording comes out as but a frail echo of the original sounds, reiterating yet again that something as pure as birdsong can only be experienced in the moment.
In the spring I had the pleasure of listening to Liz Berry reading her poems in the characteristic Black Country accent. It was as soothing as listening to birdsong on an early spring morning. Poetry that touches the audience’s heart and connects them with the pure and pristine part of their minds, which is the pinnacle of all great art.
This poem that popped into my mailbox today suited the season (late summer – early autumn) and the weather.
If space and time, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.
The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
Yet let them be divine.
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
Though the ancient sage Ved Vyas was a virtuoso scholar who compiled the Vedas and who is supposed to have written a number of treatises on philosophy among other things, I like to think of him above all as the world’s first writer of metafiction. In the epic Mahabharata, Vyasa not only narrates the story of himself narrating the story to his divine scribe but also steps in and out of the narrative to advise his characters and even procreates some of them. This labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, the longest epic recorded in the history of humankind, is surely the epitome of metafiction.
Salutations to Vyasa on his birthday which is celebrated by students across India as a day of honouring their Gurus.
A Guru is much more than a mere tutor or instructor. The Sanskrit word Guru means one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. A Guru is one who shows the student the path to know themselves.
While I have been privileged to study from a number of excellent tutors, I have been blessed to learn from as many Gurus including venerable Professors and authors who illuminated my life from the pages of their books, starting from Vyasa to the Bard, the Poet, Nabokov, Barnes, Spark, Salinger, Coover, Barthelme, Gass, Scholes, Waugh… My Pranams to all of them.
May God protect us both (My Preceptor and me)
May God nourish us both
May we work together uniting our strength for the good of humanity
May our studies be luminous and purposeful
May there be no animosity between us
May there be peace (in the divine), peace (in the environment), peace (within the self)
From the Taittiriya Upanishad.
I think of my Gurus – Mentors, Professors and Teachers who have influenced me, with immense gratitude and respect, when I chant these lines every morning.