Monday, September 2, 2019

Elizabeth Barrett Browning*

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806—1861) is one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century. She suffered from ill health from her teens onward, beginning with a lung ailment when she was 14, and a spinal injury at 15. The prescribed laudanum and morphine she became reliant upon may have also contributed to her frail health.

Her family was very supportive of her writing — collecting one of the largest collections of juvenilia relating to any English writer — but was later so over-protective of her that she and Robert Browning had to elope to become married.

She dedicated herself to an educated expression of Christian faith, learning Hebrew while still in her teens, and later turning to Greek. She also read Milton's Paradise Lost, and Dante's Inferno while still young. Barrett Browning passionately believed that Christianity was naturally suited to being explored through poetry — that the highest poetry was essentially religious. She said in an 1842 letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford, “The failure of religious poets turns less upon their being religious, than on their not being poets. Christ’s religion is essentially poetry — poetry glorified.”

A Thought For A Lonely Death-Bed

If God compel thee to this destiny,
To die alone, with none beside thy bed
To ruffle round with sobs thy last word said
And mark with tears the pulses ebb from thee,—
Pray then alone, ' O Christ, come tenderly!
By thy forsaken Sonship in the red
Drear wine-press,—by the wilderness out-spread,—
And the lone garden where thine agony
Fell bloody from thy brow, —by all of those
Permitted desolations, comfort mine!
No earthly friend being near me, interpose
No deathly angel 'twixt my face and thine,
But stoop Thyself to gather my life's rose,
And smile away my mortal to Divine!'

Sonnet 22

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

*This is the third Kingdom Poets post about Elizabeth Barrett Browning: first post, second post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.