Book Review: Browning’s Sonnets

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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.

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Ignatow’s Sunday At The State Hospital

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Sunday at the State Hospital

I am sitting across the table
eating my visit sandwich.
The one I brought him stays suspended
near his mouth; his eyes focus
on the table and seem to think,
his shoulders hunched forward.
I chew methodically,
pretending to take him
as a matter of course.
The sandwich tastes mad
and I keep chewing.
My past is sitting in front of me –
filled with itself
and trying with almost no success
to bring the present to its mouth.

More Abstract Ignatow 2 - Dryden

Asher Blake’s Talking With Michael Black

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Talking With Michael Black

I don’t just love you in your kimono
rage, your outfit for oriental jazz.
Constancy, sweet constancy, your head
within our fridge. My child, love
is yours not for blowing piles
of Miles in a cocaine fusion,
cocksure in your shoulder pads,
the wolf-geist in my guest house.
Because you are my son.
That is why I love you.

Not for the way you read Ginsberg’s Howl
with the actual pride of your daemon,
attempting some crystal adage
but lacking even the Hebrew School
knowledge of that Devil Moloch
who took you hostage. We still
ransom ourselves mad, and build
bridges over Gehenna ravines
inside your everyday mind,
for you, my little one, are still in sight.

You emerged in an aureole of perplexity,
of misery. We never travail
in your worm-like misery, but I stoop
in the dark in my attorney suit,
my silken fencing mask, and burn
real money in sprawling Texan
wastebaskets because
I truly love you, far more
than you love Ginsberg.

When you heard you had a son, the lightning
flew, ran with golden feet on each stone
vertebrae, that was how you said you knew.
Though you crush on Coltrane’s chakras,
that thrum and moan with vibraphone ease,
remember the greater liberation:
being born in flesh and bone
as generations more of living beings.

Dear Michael, music of the trees,
monster of epiphany, I see through
the forest, I know the field.
I’ve cleared the path in pain, in part
by cleaning up your child mess and vomit.
The tragic song to me is always klezmer,
like some carousel of ecstatic clarinet;
like my old arena: I know the field.
Your path comes through Michael,
come and I will lead you.

The real thing can cost
in fire; surely some flames
may touch the original Nordic
boat, even you, the gambler’s
wisely crooked dice.
Not for any tenderness
of youth, but in your grizzled
cheek as you resist the mental
ward – we love you.

A baby, already you brought
the doctors of the void to sound
their “ah’s.” They make the
illness the oracle. By now
you realize that real inference
appears by sessions looking
in the mirror, and if you cast reflections
twice, thrice weekly, send the bill
to me; grow a full, luxurious
beard. Just comply with us
on this: please take your meds;
I beg you to take your meds.

I have swallowed your horror
since you emerged into this world
from the areola, burst out from
a bison side. Your pills now the whole
horror swallow. Eat them
and take what we give in silence.

Take a chair beside me; my chair
into your room when I am gone.
Grow almost like me; grow almost
as ancient beside me, full of the throat
that throws wishbones of law,
and sets down pillowed cushions
for the rabbis in the synagogue.