Book Review: Browning’s Sonnets


Lately I’ve been wondering how difficult it is to find sincere Christian poets of high caliber. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a priest in Victorian England, who is acknowledged today as a bold and brilliant poet is one. But in a three part series of posts called Books Unfit To Read, (see Books Unfit to Read (part 1)) I address the domination of culture by anti-Christian elements. In my opinion this leads the world to heresy in both subtle and overt ways, despite the fact that the world is admittedly furnished thereby with culture, (say what you will).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning appears to be part of the answer to my prayers. She was a Christian poet with intensely ethical concerns. Because of physical illness, (a lung disease since 14, a spinal injury since 15), Elizabeth was a chronic invalid during much of her formative years. In her youth she learned, largely on her own, Hebrew, Greek, classical literature, Shakespeare, and much else; she was very well read in literature. Almost confined to bedrest, she became heavy with grief, especially after her favorite brother died in a drowning accident. Her aspirations and work were literary, and she didn’t really hope for happiness in this world.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was a slow blooming poet, her writing projects were exciting from an early age. At ten she wrote an epic poem about war. At twenty she wrote “An Essay On Mind” a poem which according to The Poetry Foundation was “a pretentious and frigid effort to survey in some eighty-eight pages the history of science, philosophy, and poetry, from ancient Greece to the present.” About the age of 27 she made a translation of Prometheus Bound, which she considered on hindsight a failure. However she later revised it greatly and apparently honed it into something outstanding.

It was in her thirties Browning first became famous for two volumes of poems. Popular with critics and the public, she was considered one of England’s leading poets. And she thereby came to the attention of Robert Browning, an American poet whom she had praised in a poem. This literary contact sparked a real life romance which in turn became immortalized in these poems, “Sonnets From The Portuguese” written before their marriage, but published after the couple had eloped to Italy.

These “Sonnets From The Portuguese” are the extremely candid and tender-hearted revelation of a woman profoundly grateful to find love when she had written it out of possibility. They also express her care to secure this love. She almost worships Robert in these poems, which is in the sonnet tradition, true, but elicited my own protective instincts because of the extremes of her gratitude. Robert Browning was six years her junior, but certain in his love, and had wooed her, despite her physical disability, and despite the fact that her father tried to prevent his children from marrying. These poems concern the rehabilitation of a heart, moving from grief and isolation slowly, bit by bit, to a love contained by security and hope.

Here are Two Poems from Sonnets From The Portuguese.

The volume is very strong, and conveys so much feeling that it seemed to flow directly off the page. The Sonnets are ahead of their time in their liveliness of meter and enjambment. Though Browning fought in her writing against the domination of women, (as she fought against slavery and the abuse of children,) she believes in patriarchy. Her marriage makes a kind of case for righteous patriarchy, in which love and respect are both reciprocal and Biblical. “Sonnets From The Portuguese” I suspect is a breakthrough in its candor and real intimacy. Other Romantic poets (Browning was considered a Romantic) wrote with candor and vitality, but I don’t remember finding such vulnerability in them, things so important and unguarded in the heart.

I very much enjoyed this volume and hope you will too. A few weeks ago I did a close read of Browning’s most famous poem, Sonnet 43, which you can read here.


George Herbert’s Jordan (I)


Jordan I
by George Herbert

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty

Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime;
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,

Who plainly say, my God, my King.


Robert Hass On Poetic Form


On YouTube, former poet laureate Robert Hass can be found delivering a really mind blowing lecture on poetic form. His talk is very abstract, brimming with connections between evolutionary theory, psychology, the connection between stanza length, and Greek maths. He links haiku and the blues, and gives a fascinating brief on how the power of theater lies in its resemblance to a grammatically complete sentence. Totally anti-texting. There are good things in the video not included, but I invite you to read through the link here, Robert Hass Lecture Highlights which also includes some comments of my own. To just see the video you can look up “Robert Hass Sewanee Craft 2010”.

Books Unfit To Read (part 2)


This post began as a book review of a poetics manifesto written in the 1970s by counter-culture leader Ed Sanders. This short manifesto, Investigative Poetics, instructs poets to keep research files on the historical conspiracies of their time, on friends and enemies. This moral material he suggests is the stuff of poetry with a political vector. In certain ways this can work. Gulag Archipelago was a prose work of similar motivation and is a tremendous accomplishment. However Investigative Poetics struggles at just making sense and is more than a bit cracked. I was going to give it two stars out of ten.

Ed Sanders has had a complex career though and getting a file on him for the post was a bit involved. Of particular relevance here is his history of the Charles Manson murders. Sanders, who was a hippie who lived in New York, spent time camping with “the Family” (Manson’s followers) in Death Valley after some of the murderers were apprehended for their crimes.

In part 1 of this post I weighed the claims for reading poets who are sacrilegious or anti-Christian, concluding that to know, and truly love the lost, means to witness with them their pain, even the way they curse, without being moved to poor judgment. And I believe that view has validity. What else is hearing our children’s painful rejection of our own Lord? What else is it to understand our times, its dangers and darkness? A prayer ministry for the lost implies an understanding of their plight.

Nonetheless, we are also called to be separate. We are prohibited from fellowship with unbelievers, and we cannot walk with those with whom we do not agree.

“Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.”
(2 Corinthians 6:14-17)

God instructs us to  be separate and not seek communion or fellowship with those outside of Christ. So a writer who is darkness ought not be our fellowship or communing friend, even if they seem innocent, like perhaps Rumi or Ginsberg or Bly. We may say “is this really necessary? I have known such nice people outside of Christ.” I am not advocating a view that makes all unbelievers devils. But most are; most never believe; most are devils just like Judas, and on the broad way. And they deserve love, and humane treatment and have tremendous value, and are the parents, spouses, children, of Christians. And they despise Christians from the deepest parts of their being, and are advancing an attack against our Lord, before they go to the place they are expecting to go.

The truth is not always what it seems. In the following interview with Kerouac and Ed Sanders on William Buckley’s show, all the men lined up, with their legs crossed, and such a big point being made about Kerouac’s drunkenness, the shot of the audience lapping it up, leads with such careful design to the Nazi greeting shouted by Kerouac, and echoed quietly by Sanders. These are “poets, beatniks, hippies”. So what country do we live in? And this puts everything in the right light because God warns us for a reason and there is a fourth beast coming.

The second video is Ginsberg’s subtle glamorization of this outburst, and that despite Kerouac’s rejection of Ginsberg on the show. Why does Ginsberg or anyone else need to be reminded that Hitler was one of the most evil men to ever live, an extremely worthless leader, and is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people better than himself? Comments welcome.




Blake’s The Night Drops Carbon


The Night Drops Carbon
by Asher Blake

The bath of night is a shining pig,
the wicked drive into its teats full of hooch.

There is music forgotten by the musicians;
pagan orchestras
but they are heavy with milk from the sky.

The night drops on its children
like a weary blessing.

The night falls
like a rubber spider somewhere to force a laugh.

The night is a genie
for an ignoramus.
As the robber dons his dark
clothes quickly so we put the night upon us.

The night only falls
continually before us like a moth
as we speak.

The bath of night bedevils me,
drains between my legs.

She is pockmarked and porcine;
But I have smashed my evening tea set
for the music.

I swell with her like child.
I assume what we all assume, the night
before our births,
exhaling the holy cistern like a stream back into
my mother, or back into thine.

With all the locks of wisdom shaken
loose – hold my hand
or I will plunge into the black sleep
for dreaming.

Save me from the night it poses for a mug shot.
Save me from the future already black and white.

I am afraid I’ve read the black book
of night, for now she is naked
and I know her easy lies.

Still I marvel at the salon of women lovers;
how they labor with risen dead girls on their backs.
They swim on and on, as sudden as a flame
or school of fish.

The honeymoon does vex the spinster,
and the spinster intrudes upon their sex.
And the girls who dream
only seem to have good taste,
but tease their long hair
with wavy permanents.

Alpha and Omega, with stars in His punctured hands;
the Lord of sky and soil knotted His bandanna up
to disguise His feathered headdress,
blue and red and white with glory.
Sky is a holy mountain, the Sinai only He can climb,
black spangled in your paisley sigh,
your sunset’s exclamation!
My God has mountains
like darkened domes instead of shoulders!

Have you ever seen the reaping of the foil hat?
Have you ever seen the weakling lower
his head and plow into the Devil?
The Lord in His peaked helmet of night,
bends and plows into us now. Praise Him!

Asher Blake’s Astrolabe Prayer


An astrolabe is a mechanism for taking measurements of the stars, it means literally, star taker, and has an elegant circular shape with precision nodes or engravings. This piece speaks to how we face the otherworldliness of Heaven in our (often insufficient) prayers, and by how Earth too can feel otherworldly. This poem fell in my lap as I first listened to a fantastic album by the Nightblooms, Star-Taker.

Astrolabe Prayer

On my knees I bend my ear so close to
the scuttling
insects, hear the tiny
mechanics of their holy travail
I have feared they entered in,
It is the world I cannot hunt or devour,
by no means overcome,
that balances me in the digital
war-room of its eye.

There are many songs in his dance in the dust
step; four dimensions spill the crackling
energy, just as sperm (and spore/seed,)
can fill a jungle.
Speak on the grinding glacier,
emote the epic course
of victory in a weary warrior’s heart.

Type your prayer, lacking carpet and collection
plate for eucharist, commune with me.
We are as wounded gods, poisoned by
our bite, smoldering creatures
hating to be cast off, but playing
at puppetry ourselves.

Truth to my dog: saying,
the patience is all with her.
Even my beard, fuzzy
ball around my face frustrates me,
but she reclines like a prodigy matured.

Yes, I am taken in my prayers,
I say Sunny, to thrift, to knit
all the little hills we rove,
the rain-rivened, alien hemmed
fields. Like a paper astrolable
I am taken to the contemplation
in my prayers.

They are not even a hill
of beans. My folded hands
are flightless bent-nosed
paper aeroplanes a child throws.
I hold not the power of displacement
in an ant’s possession,
for he exerts all his being
making home,
where I have less in this plaster
cut, these closets that cloak me,
offer me a day.

Loss unless the backbone has been ghosted.
I lie along the skirt, the fringe
of a creative mastermind
in common, like a doodle of a cat
on a napkin’s back.
God, turn me over.

Flip me in your hand like the life of Samson.
Seven zones and locks, seven
dams and docks.
If we can heart lie,
how much can we bear the silver sheen
in wing when we glorify.