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John Lundberg

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Keeping Up With the Brownings

Posted: 02/19/2012 2:37 pm

The romance of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning got a lot of attention last week when scans of their love letters, previously available for viewing only at Wellesley college, went online just in time for Valentine's Day (The Huffington Post had nice coverage of the news here).

Their story reads like a Victorian version of The Notebook. Robert broke the ice in 1845 with a letter (after reading Elizabeth's book Poems), sparking two years of smitten correspondence. But their love had to overcome Elizabeth's intransigent father, who didn't believe that any of his children should marry. Elizabeth finally defied him, and she and Robert eloped to Florence, Italy where they lived happily ever after. Her father never forgave her.

All the twists and turns of the Brownings' love story are chronicled beautifully in their letters, but their love also played out in their poetry. Take this sonnet of Elizabeth's, written after a poignant moment of her courtship with Robert:

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee tonight.
This said -- he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand... a simple thing,
Yes I wept for it -- this... the paper's light...
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God's future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine -- and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this... 0 Love, thy words have ill availed
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

And we shouldn't forget that the Brownings' poetic talents are the reason that their romance gets so much attention. Elizabeth was a skilled and prolific sonnet writer. She wrote her most famous book, Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of musings on her love for Robert, in secret before their marriage. It contains some of the best-known sonnets ever written -- you're surely familiar with the famous line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." It feels overplayed and a little saccharine now, but the poem it introduces is actually well measured and quite beautiful:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Robert Browning lived largely in his wife's literary shadow, but he is appreciated these days for dramatic monologues like "My Last Duchess" and "Fra Lippo Lippi." He could also write a strong love poem himself. The sexual suggestion in "Meeting at Night" is so brazen that, once you notice it, it might make you a little uncomfortable.

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

You can view all of the Brownings' letters at the online archive here. And you can take a closer look at the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning here and here.