Saturday, January 7, 2017

The letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett part 5: Sonnets from the Portuguese

Elizabeth Barrett Browning photographed in May 1861

Sonnets from the Portuguese

During the time that she and Browning were falling in love and planning their secret marriage and elopement to Italy, Elizabeth Barrett wrote a sonnet sequence that is filled with references to the events of their courtship. She apparently hinted at the poems' existence in one of her meetings with Browning in the weeks before their marriage; when he asked to see them, she responded, "You shall see some day at Pisa what I will not show you now. Does not Solomon say that ‘there is a time to read what is written’. If he does’nt, he ought." (22 July 1846)

However, she apparently didn't show the sonnets to Browning until they were living in Italy. He later wrote, "all this delay, because I happened early to say something against putting one's love into verse [...]" But one day, "[...] I said something else on the other side . . . and next morning she said hesitatingly 'Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?' — and then — 'There they are, if you care to see them.' . . . How I see the gesture, and hear the tones . . . " [1]

Because of the sonnets' intimate content, the couple discussed the question of whether they were to be published. Browning later said, "I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's." [2] The sonnets were included in the new edition of Barrett Browning's Poems, published in 1850. To deflect the embarrassment of personal exposure the sequence was given the title Sonnets from the Portuguese, implying that the poems were translations of centuries-old originals. Barrett Browning had published a poem in her 1844 collection entitled "Catarina to Camoens," in which a dying woman addresses her poet-lover (Camoens is the British rendering of the name of Luís de Camões, the Renaissance Portuguese poet). Robert Browning "associated Elizabeth with the Portuguese Catarina," and "Catarina to Camoens" was placed immediately before Sonnets from the Portuguese in the new edition of her Poems. [3]

Browning later wrote, "there was a trial at covering it [Barrett Browning's authorship and the autobiographical nature of the Sonnets] a little by leaving out one sonnet which had plainly a connexion with the former works [probably Sonnet XLII, which directly quotes a previously published Barrett Browning poem]: but it was put in afterwards when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared." [4]

"The depth and breadth and height my soul can reach"

The Sonnets have since, of course, "become the most beloved of all Mrs. Browning's works" [5], particularly Sonnet XLIII, which begins,
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach [...]

The phrase "depth and breadth and height" echoes one from a letter which Robert Browning sent to her:
I feel, after reading these letters,. . .as ordinarily after seeing you, sweetest, or hearing from you. . .that if marriage did not exist, I should infallibly invent it. I should say, no words, no feelings even, do justice to the whole conviction and religion of my soul—and tho' they may be suffered to represent some one minute's phase of it, yet, in their very fulness and passion they do injustice to the unrepresented, other minute's, depth and breadth of love. . .which let my whole life (I would say) be devoted to telling and proving and exemplifying, if not in one, then in another way— (17 January 1846)

Image of the letter from Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett of 17 January 1846

Many of the other sonnets also echo incidents and feelings described in the letters. A few examples:

The lock(s) of hair

Sonnet XVIII:
I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee [...]
In response to a direct request from Browning in his letter of November 23 for a lock of her hair, Barrett replied: "I never gave away what you ask me to give you, to a human being, except my nearest relatives & once or twice or thrice to female friends,. . .never, though reproached for it!" (24 November 1845). Later the same day, she wrote to him teasingly that she would not give him a lock of her hair, but only exchange hers for a lock of his:
I never can nor will give you this thing;—only that I will, if you please, exchange it for another thing—you understand. I too will avoid being 'assuming'; I will not pretend to be generous, no, nor "kind." It shall be pure merchandise or nothing at all. Therefore determine!—[…]

Then there is another reason for me, entirely mine. You have come to me as a dream comes, as the best dreams come. . .dearest—& so there is need to me of "a sign" to know the difference between dream & vision— [...] ought I not to have it? (24 November 1845)

Image of the letter from Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 24 November 1845

She refers to this exchange in Sonnet XIX:
The soul's Rialto hath its merchandise;
I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
And from my poet's forehead to my heart
Receive this lock [...]
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.
She received her lock on November 28 in a letter, and as the sonnet suggests, placed it in a locket which she wore over her heart. In return, she sent Browning a small gold ring, engraved "Ba," with a lock of hair in a small compartment accessed from the back. "I meant at first only to send you what is in the ring. . .which, by the way, will not fit you I know—(not certainly in the finger which it was meant for. . .) [...] but can easily be altered to the right size–" (28 November 1845)

The ring given by Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning containing a lock of her hair. Source: British Museum

He wrote her: "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." (2 December 1845) After her death, he had the inner surface of the ring inscribed "God bless you, June 29, 1861"; it is now in the British Museum.

A small comic footnote: As Barrett had suggested, Browning took the ring to be resized so that he could wear it, probably on his little finger (he may have initially planned to wear it on his ring finger, where, of course, engagement and wedding rings are worn). "I have thought again, and believe it will be best to select the finger you intended. . .as the alteration will be simpler, I find,—and one is less liable to observation and comment." (2 December 1845)

However, when he received the ring back from the jeweler, Barrett's lock of hair was missing. She sent him another one; the original had evidently been vaporized: "[...] it seems probable that there was no intentional mischief in that jeweller’s management of the ring—the divided gold must have been exposed to fire,—heated thoroughly, perhaps,—and what became of the contents then! Well, all is safe now [...]" (15 December 1845) The ring still contains a lock of her hair.

Her pet name

Sonnet XXXIII:
Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. [...]
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.
"Ba" was the name by which Elizabeth Barrett was called in her family. But when she gave her ring to Robert Browning, Barrett apparently did not explain the letters with which it was engraved. Browning quickly figured it out:
(But I have a new thing to say or sing—you never before heard me love and bless and send my heart after. . ."Ba"—did you?[)] Ba. . .and that is you! I tried (—more than wanted—) to call you that, on Wednesday! (19 December 1845)

Browning gradually began to use her pet name in his letters (and, it's likely, in their meetings). In his letter of December 21 he wrote "Ba, mi ocelle" (Ba, my eyes); he closed his letter of January 6, 1846 with "Bless you, my Ba"; and on January 11 he wrote "love, dear heart of my heart, my own, only Ba."

Of course, Barrett's use of the ring to signal to Browning that she would permit him to know and use her pet name was an indication that the couple had moved a major step closer in their growing intimacy. Browning, of course, recognized this significance, and used her private name in his most fervent endearments. In his letter of January 28, when he writes to "claim your promise’s fulfilment—say, at the summer’s end," he closes with "Till to-morrow, and ever after, God bless my heart’s own, own Ba. All my soul follows you, love!—encircles you—and I live in being yours." And in the letter he wrote to her on their wedding day, "Enough now, my dearest, dearest, own Ba! You have given me the highest, completest proof of love that ever one human being gave another."

The letters

Sonnet XXVIII:
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. [...]
Both correspondents treasured the letters they received from each other, and kept careful count of the letters they sent and received (Browning also noted all but one of their 92 in-person meetings). A year after their epistolary exchange had begun, Barrett teased Browning about the imbalance in the correspondence: "By the way you owe me two letters by your confession. A hundred & four of mine you have, & I, only a hundred & two of yours. . .which is a 'deficit' scarcely creditable to me, (—now is it?. . .) when according to the law & ordinance, a woman's hundred & four letters would take two hundred & eight at least, from the other side, to justify them–" (21 January 1846)

Browning never did catch up. At the time that they eloped to Italy and stopped sending letters to one another, Barrett had written Browning a total of 289 letters over 88 weeks; he still lagged by two, having sent her "only" 287. As might be expected, beginning in the fall of 1845, when the Pisa affair drew them emotionally closer, the pace of their correspondence increased. During the first 10 months of their acquaintance (through mid-November 1845) they exchanged a total of 150 letters, or between 3 and 4 per week; in the second 10 months, a total of 426, or almost 10 per week, nearly one each almost every day letters were delivered (there was no delivery on Sundays). From Sonnet XXVIII:
[...] this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand. . .a simple thing,
Yet 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 on my heart that beat too fast.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death

Elizabeth Barrett Browning photographed in May 1861

At the end of June 1861 Robert Browning wrote his sister Sarianna a long letter about the "calamity" of the last few days: the last illness and death of Elizabeth. After the couple's return from Rome, Elizabeth had complained of a sore throat and cold. Soon she was coughing and struggling to breathe. Treatments were ineffectual, and her nights were "passed in violent exertion without a minute's sleep."
So we went on, 'rather better, but still with the unfavorable symptoms'—was I told twice a day. She was cheerful as ever, with voice all but extinct—still, 'it would be nothing' she repeated. On Thursday night we tried asses' milk, with success—'had a better night decidedly'—always much expectoration however, and her feet swelled a little. [...] I sat by her at night. She coughed little, took the emulgent duly, and another medicine, but dozed constantly: if I spoke she looked, knew me, smiled, said she was better, and relapsed. I continued this till past three in the morning, when the dozing made me very uneasy. She said 'You did right not to wait—what a fine steamer—how comfortable!' I called Annunziata, bade her get hot water, as the Doctor had done, and send the porter for himself. I bade her sit up for the water. She did with little help—smiling, letting us act, and repeating 'Well, you do make an exaggerated case of it!' 'My hands too' she said and put them in another basin. I said you know me? 'My Robert—my heavens, my beloved'—kissing me (but I can't tell you) she said 'Our lives are held by God.' [...] She put her arms round me—'God bless you' repeatedly—kissing me with such vehemence that when I laid her down she continued to kiss the air with her lips, and several times raised her own hands and kissed them; I said 'Are you comfortable?' 'Beautiful.' I only put in a thing or two out of the many in my heart of hearts. [...] she began to sleep again—the last, I saw. I felt she must be raised, took her in my arms, I felt the struggle to cough begin, and end unavailingly—no pain, no sigh,—only a quiet sight. Her head fell on me. I thought she might have fainted, but presently there was the least knitting of the brows, and A. cried 'Quest' anima benedetta è passata! [This blessed soul has passed!]'

It was so. She is with God, who takes from me the life of my life in one sense,—not so in the truest. My life is fixed and sure now. I shall live out the remainder in her direct influence, endeavouring to complete mine, miserably imperfect now, but so as to take the good she was meant to give me. [...] I shall live in the presence of her, in every sense, I hope and believe—so that so far my loss is not irreparable—but the future is nothing to me now, except inasmuch as it confirms and realizes the past. [...] I shall try and work hard, educate [our son], and live worthy of my past fifteen years' happiness. I do not feel paroxysms of grief, but as if the very blessing, she died giving me, insensible to all beside, had begun to work already. She will be buried tomorrow. Several times in writing this I have for a moment referred in my mind to her—'I will ask Ba about that.' [...] I shall now go in and sit with herself—my Ba, for ever. The service will be that of the Ch[urch]. of En[gland]., that I may hear those only words at the beginning. ["I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."][...]

How she looks now—how perfectly beautiful!

The publication of the letters

Critic Stefan Collini has written that "Letters are performances of the self." [6] Sometimes those performances are semi- or even fully public, but it seems clear that neither Browning nor Barrett intended these letters for publication at the time, or later—they are largely private and intimate.

Even if the letters were not intended for publication, though, these were two poets writing to one another; they were both very aware that their words would be read and considered with unusual care. And because they were constrained by Barrett's circumstances to meet only once or twice a week for an hour or two (they had 92 meetings over the 70 weeks between their first meeting and elopement), it was through their letters that "the lovers had most of their contact." [7]

In fact, their initial meetings were apparently somewhat awkward. A year after Browning initiated the correspondence and seven months after they had begun to meet in person, Barrett wrote to him,
You never guessed perhaps [...] the curious double feeling I had about you. . .you personally, & you as the writer of these letters,. . .& the crisis of the feeling, when I was positively vexed & jealous of myself for not succeeding better in making a unity of the two. I could not!— And moreover I could not help but that the writer of the letters seemed nearer to me, long. . .long. . .& in spite of the postmark. . .than did the personal visitor who confounded me [...] I could read such letters for ever & answer them after a fashion. . .that, I felt from the beginning. But you—! (4-5 January 1846)
In their letters they could both be more personally revealing and emotionally open; and both of them carefully saved the letters from the other. Only one was ever lost: Browning's declaration of love after their first meeting that he burned at Barrett's request (see Part 2: "Burn it at once").

Robert Wiedeman Penini Browning with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ca. 1860

Robert Browning died in 1889. Ten years after his father's death, Robert Browning Jr. (known in the family as "Pen," short for Penini), brought the courtship letters to the renowned London publishers Smith, Elder. Pen wrote a short introduction to the published volumes, The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, explaining his decision to make them public:
In considering the question of publishing these letters, which are all that ever passed between my father and mother, for after their marriage they were never separated, it seemed to me that my only alternatives were to allow them to be published or to destroy them. I might, indeed, have left the matter to the decision of others after my death, but that would be evading a responsibility which I feel that I ought to accept.

Ever since my mother's death these letters were kept by my father in a certain inlaid box, into which they exactly fitted, and where they have always rested, letter beside letter, each in its consecutive order and numbered on the envelope by his own hand.

My father destroyed all the rest of his correspondence, and not long before his death he said, referring to these letters: 'There they are, do with them as you please when I am dead and gone!'

The box in which Robert Browning preserved the courtship correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett

The original published editions of the letters can be read at the Internet Archive. A searchable database of the texts of all of the letters is available at The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition. The letters themselves have been digitized by the libraries of Wellesley College and Baylor University.

Last time:  Part 4: "The highest, completest proof of love": The secret marriage

  1. Quoted in Dorothy Mermin, "The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese." ELH, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), p. 359.
  2. Quoted in Richard Gilder, "A Romance of the 19th Century," The Century Magazine, Vol. 70, May-Oct. 1905:
  3. Poetry Foundation: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning":
  4. Quoted in Mermin, p. 359.
  5. Poetry Foundation: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  6. Stefan Collini, "Highlight of Stay So Far," London Review of Books,  Vol. 38 No. 23, 1 December 2016, p. 7.
  7. Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 126

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