Tag Archives: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

12 April: Easter Day, My Changed Ear.

bell sallies
This is an exceptional bell tower: just count those sallies, or ropes, one to each bell. We are in Lincoln Cathedral in England; the bells are high above the ringing chamber so that the sound rings out from the hilltop across the plain below the city. It’s also good for the ringers’ ears not to be too close to the bells.
Here is Elizabeth Barrett Browning* reflecting on hearing the church bell on Easter morning:

“The skies that turned to darkness with thy pain

Make now a summer’s day;

And on my changèd ear that sabbath bell

Records how Christ is risen.”

EBB certainly knew times of darkness before she won through to earthly happiness with Robert. Her changéd ear is surely one that dares listen for Good News.
Let ours be attuned to the message of the bells. He is risen: even if a number of curmudgeons complain at the bells interrupting their Sunday morning, let them ring out, and let us be seen and heard as Christians who love one another in the risen body of Christ.
Further reflections this week come from members of L’Arche Kent. During our pilgrimage last year, we prayed and reflected on the Emmaus story.
* from The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. I.

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10 April, Good Friday. Desert XL: Love and woe interwound.

poperinge.1

No crown! the woe instead

Is heavy on his head,

Pressing inward on his brain

With a hot and clinging pain

Till all tears are prest away,

And clear and calm his vision may

Peruse the black abyss.

No rod, no sceptre is

Holden in his fingers pale;

They close instead upon the nail,

Concealing the sharp dole,

Never stirring to put by

The fair hair peaked with blood,

Drooping forward from the rood

Helplessly, heavily

On the cheek that waxeth colder,

Whiter ever, and the shoulder

Where the government was laid.

His glory made the heavens afraid;

Will he not unearth this cross from its hole?

His pity makes his piteous state;

Will he be uncompassionate

Alone to his proper soul?

Yea, will he not lift up

His lips from the bitter cup,

His brows from the dreary weight,

His hand from the clenching cross,

Crying, “My Father, give to me

Again the joy I had with thee

Or ere this earth was made for loss?”

No stir, no sound.

The love and woe being interwound

He cleaveth to the woe;

And putteth forth heaven’s strength below,

To bear.

And that creates his anguish now,

Which made his glory there.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

This is the introduction to the first volume of EBB’s Poetical Works. It sees Christ as a second Adam, atoning for the sins of the first Adam and Eve, ‘fallen humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the wilderness’. And here is Christ in the wilderness, the desert, of the Cross.

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6 February. Brownings XX: In a great light

francis stargazing

Elizabeth is still considering  the creative process in this post.

“One should study the mechanical part of the art, as nearly all that there is to be studied—for the more one sits and thinks over the creative process, the more it confirms itself as ‘inspiration,’ nothing more nor less. Or, at worst, you write down old inspirations, what you remember of them … but with that it begins.

‘Reflection’ is exactly what it names itself—a re-presentation, in scattered rays from every angle of incidence, of what first of all became present in a great light, a whole one. So tell me how these lights are born, if you can!

But I can tell anybody how to make melodious verses—let him do it therefore—it should be exacted of all writers.”

One way to learn to write melodious verses I borrowed from Christina Rossetti and her brothers. It worked for teenage pupils, even if it did not produce much high art: the pupils are given sheets with blank lines split into syllables, with the last word alone given, thus:

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ cloud

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ hills

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ crowd

____ ____ ____ ____ ____ daffodils.

I don’t think I ever used that verse though! My point is that the discipline that EBB advocates enables the creative process to get under way; not necessarily smoothly, but surely. And that applies in other areas of life as well.

 

(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

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5 February. Brownings XIX: struggling to communicate.

amsterdam.attic.dove

Elizabeth again, on the process of writing. Where does the idea come from, how does the writer express it? Kathleen Raine would argue that certain poets, at least, had access to eternal springs that provided the light that led to their words. EBB has the same idea

“Yes, I quite believe as you do that what is called the ‘creative process’ in works of Art, is just inspiration and no less—which made somebody say to me not long since; And so you think that Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ was of the effluence of the Holy Ghost?’—rather a startling deduction, … only not quite as final as might appear to somebodies perhaps. At least it does not prevent my going on to agree with the saying of Spiridion, … do you remember?… ‘Tout ce que l’homme appelle inspiration, je l’appelle aussi revelation*,’ … if there is not something too self-evident in it after all—my sole objection!

And is it not true that your inability to analyse the mental process in question, is one of the proofs of the fact of inspiration?—as the gods were known of old by not being seen to move their feet,—coming and going in an equal sweep of radiance.—And still more wonderful than the first transient great light you speak of, … and far beyond any work of reflection, except in the pure analytical sense in which you use the word, … appears that gathering of light on light upon particular points, as you go (in composition) step by step, till you get intimately near to things, and see them in a fullness and clearness, and an intense trust in the truth of them which you have not in any sunshine of noon (called real!) but which you have then … and struggle to communicate.”

  • Whatever people call Inspiration, I also call Revelation.
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by 8Robert Browning)

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3 February, Brownings XVII: a sort of fungus of the brain.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning 
Here is the permanent invalid Elizabeth writing to Robert about one of the doctors who helped to keep her that way. For all the light-hearted tone, this is an intimate confession of her situation.
“I had a doctor once who thought he had done everything because he had carried the inkstand out of the room—’Now,’ he said, ‘you will have such a pulse to-morrow.’ He gravely thought poetry a sort of disease—a sort of fungus of the brain—and held as a serious opinion, that nobody could be properly well who exercised it as an art—which was true (he maintained) even of men—he had studied the physiology of poets, ‘quotha’—but that for women, it was a mortal malady and incompatible with any common show of health under any circumstances.
And then came the damnatory clause in his experience … that he had never known ‘a system’ approaching mine in ‘excitability’ … except Miss Garrow’s … a young lady who wrote verses for Lady Blessington’s annuals … and who was the only other female rhymer he had had the misfortune of attending. And she was to die in two years, though she was dancing quadrilles then (and has lived to do the same by the polka), and I, of course, much sooner, if I did not ponder these things, and amend my ways, and take to reading ‘a course of history’!!”
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

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26 September. Brownings XVI: nothing has humbled me so much as your love

white.violets

“At first and when I did not believe that you really loved me, when I thought you deceived yourself, then, it was different. But now … now … when I see and believe your attachment for me, do you think that any cause in the world (except what diminished it) could render it less a source of joy to me? I mean as far as I myself am considered.

Now if you ever fancy that I am vain of your love for me, you will be unjust, remember. If it were less dear, and less above me, I might be vain perhaps. But I may say before God and you, that of all the events of my life, inclusive of its afflictions, nothing has humbled me so much as your love. Right or wrong it may be, but true it is, and I tell you. Your love has been to me like God’s own love, which makes the receivers of it kneelers.

Why all this should be written, I do not know.”

(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

EBB wrote for an audience of one, but we can read over Robert’s shoulder, and contemplate and be thankful for our own sources of personal joy, the channels through which God’s love washes over us.

 

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September 25: Brownings XV: Hair 4, Robert’s response. Relics XIX.

st.pauls.from meynell
‘Relics’ seems not quite the right word for the ring with Elizabeth’s hair that Robert has just received, but it serves the same purpose of making her present in a special way. Of course they overcame the obstacles preventing their marriage, and were happier and richer as a result of their boldness.
December 2, 1845.
I was happy, so happy before! But I am happier and richer now.
My love—no words could serve here, but there is life before us, and to the end of it the vibration now struck will extend—I will live and die with your beautiful ring, your beloved hair—comforting me, blessing me. Let me write to-morrow—when I think on all you have been and are to me, on the wonder of it and the deliciousness, it makes the paper words that come seem vainer than ever—To-morrow I will write.”
From “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” Edited by Robert Browning

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24 September. The Brownings XIV: Hair 3, the ring. Relics XVIII.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning

Apologies! This post ought to have appeared six months ago! See 27 & 28 February. Here are two more letters from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning: she has sent away  a lock of hair and a ring to put it into; but they have not come back, and she is getting impatient.

And this is 150 years before the arrival of Ebay and Amazon.

“I have been waiting … waiting for what does not come … the ring … sent to have the hair put in; but it won’t come (now) until too late for the post, and you must hear from me before Monday … you ought to have heard to-day. It has not been my fault—I have waited. Oh these people—who won’t remember that it is possible to be out of patience! So I send you my letter now … and what is in the paper now … and the rest, you shall have after Monday. And you will not say a word … not then … not at all!—I trust you. And may God bless you.”

“This is the mere postscript to the letter I have just sent away. By a few minutes too late, comes what I have all day been waiting for, … and besides (now it is just too late!) now I may have a skein of silk if I please, to make that knot with, … for want of which, two locks meant for you, have been devoted to the infernal gods already … fallen into a tangle and thrown into the fire … and all the hair of my head might have followed, for I was losing my patience and temper fast, … and the post to boot. So wisely I shut my letter, (after unwisely having driven everything to the last moment!)—and now I have silk to tie fast with … to tie a ‘nodus’ … ‘dignus’ of the celestial interposition—and a new packet shall be ready to go to you directly.” (from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning).
Start reading it for free: http://amzn.eu/1IB3ps4
Nodus is Latin for knot; dignus means worthy.

 

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September 16, Brownings XIII: Life is a condition of the soul.

elizabeth's rose
“And altogether, I may say that the earth looks the brighter to me in proportion to my own deprivations. The laburnum trees and rose trees are plucked up by the roots—but the sunshine is in their places, and the root of the sunshine is above the storms.
What we call Life is a condition of the soul, and the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault. These tears in our eyes, these faintings of the flesh, will not hinder such improvement.”*

london towers clouds
London of 1846 looked rather different to what lies under the stormy sky see here. Elizabeth’s house would have been behind the towers to the left, Robert lived a few miles away to our left; the trains that made travelling easier for him to visit her, and the penny post, were new technology then; our couple were bang up to date in their relationship!
I’m not sure I totally agree with EBB that the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault, So many people have been too badly hurt to accept whatever help they need, even when it is offered. The sun may have to shine above their clouds for some time before breaking through.
But she is right that in the long term: tears, trials and tribulations will not hinder our growth, though we may need God’s grace and other people to help us through them. Christianity is not primarily a self-improvement course!

*Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning. (from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning; available on line)

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June 2: No shadow of doubt in her mind; Brownings XI.

 

shadows-640x480

Let’s return to Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (Ba) and Robert Browning’s letters. You’ll recall how they carried on courting under the eye of her tyrannical father until they eloped to Italy. Here is EBB, writing on 30 March 1946. No thought now that his feeling for her was a mere generous impulse; not really, or is she teasing him? Surely she is.

How one writes and writes over and over the same thing!

But day by day the same sun rises, . . over, and over, and nobody is tired. May God bless you, dearest of all, and justify what has been by what shall be, . . and let me be free of spoiling any sun of yours! Shall you ever tell me in your thoughts, I wonder, to get out of your sun?

No–no–Love keeps love too safe! and I have faith, you see, as a grain of mustard-seed!

Your own

Ba.

Say how you are . . mind!

Nobody is tired of the sun rising each day, in fact the Psalms are full of joy and praise for the daily wonder, such as here in Ps 19. Love keeps love safe, indeed: God even provides a metaphorical tent, or tabernacle, for the sun!

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

Read more Browning letters here.

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