Thursday, January 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I told you I was planning to undertake a Victorian poetry-copying project. I began with Robert Browning's "Any Wife to Any Husband," which, frankly, I found difficult to love. Like many of Browning's poems, it's a dramatic monologue--this one spoken from the point of view of a wife who is wondering if it matters whether or not her husband is faithful to her. I think she's referring to fidelity after her death, but I'm not quite clear on the matter: it could also refer to fidelity during her life. In any case, she decides that their love transcends physical fidelity, and no matter what he does, she will love him anyway.

Now, this is a common-enough Victorian conception of Love and feminine duty and masculine peccadillo and guilt, etc. Yet while I want to avoid judging this poetry on the basis of its cultural preconceptions, I found this poem heavy going. My reaction was a disappointment because, as a high school student, I adored Browning's excellent and creepy "My Last Duchess." But reading "Any Wife" felt like wading through mud, only to be rewarded with stanzas such as this one, when the wife concludes:

And yet thou art the nobler of us two:
What dare I dream of, that thou canst not do,
Outstripping my ten small steps with one stride?
I'll say then, here's a trial and a task--
Is it to bear?--if easy, I'll not ask:
Though love fail, I can trust on thy pride.

This poem was disheartening, so I was not excited about the next step in my plan--to read the poetry of Browning's real-life wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I persevered. I opened up her collection Sonnets from the Portuguese, and this--the very first sonnet in the book--is what I found:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung

Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,

Who each one in a gracious hand appears

To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:

And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,

I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,

The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years

Of my own life, who by turns had flung

A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,

So weeping, how a mystic shape did move

Behind me, and drew me backwards by the hair;

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,--

“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But there,

The silver answer rang,--“Not death, but Love.”

Love hauls her away by the hair! Can you believe it?

Barrett Browning's sonnets are bizarre and amazing: delicately constructed, musical, yet packed with physical imagery and full of feeling. But they are also quintessentially Victorian. I can see why her husband must have envisioned her as ideally patient, dutiful, and pure; and the complications are exciting.

I've since read that Emily Dickinson was a fan, and I can see why. What I don't see is this: Why is Robert Browning now more famous than his wife? Why has she been slotted into the Boring Genteel Poetess category while he retains the position of Serious Intellectual Poet? What's gone wrong?


charlotte gordon said...

She's a woman, that's why. Didn't you know we are weaker more emotional and just not as intellectually sound as men? Also, we faint easily.

Thank you, Dawn. I love this poem, too. And, as usual, I get such sustenance from your blog. I love this poem, too. But I did not know I did, until you told me about it again.

LewEllyn said...

Has anyone read the original "Letters of a Portuguese Nun" (1669) that may have inspired these love sonnets? I have a book about this by Myriam Cyr, Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love, but have only read snippets of it. Back in 17th century Paris, these letters caused quite a stir, I guess, and I wondered how their passion, language & imagery may be reflected in Browning's sonnets. It's interesting that the man/woman issue comes up here, because the consensus is that Letters from a Portuguese Nun were not written by a nun at all, but by a male writer looking to earn some cash. Apparently he did a pretty good job. However, Cyr argues the opposite in her book -- that the nun could have and indeed did write the famous letters. I have no idea, but just remembered this book as I read the sonnet you quoted by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the comment that followed. I'll have to go back to it, read the letters, and more of Brownings sonnets.

Dawn Potter said...

No, I've never read the book, though I've just ordered a Barrett Browning bio, which may shed some light on the issue. What I'm trying to do is convince Charlotte Gordon (who wrote a bio of Anne Bradstreet) to write a book about EBB. Maybe she can solve the mystery.