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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Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach

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Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is kind of the 19th century’s nihilist version of William Carlos Williams “This Is Just To Say”. He has formulated a classic slice of sublimated spitefulness; turns a plate of your sweetest plums reduced to a pile of pits. My comments with Dover Beach focus on how he teases us with the appearance of a formal poem in various ways at various times, but really only wants to lead us on to felt trouble.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ – The Windhover

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Randall Jarrell once said, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” Gerard Manley Hopkins’, who was both exacting and inspired, counted his poem “The Windhover” as his greatest work, and many readers agree.  He was surely struck rapt by lightning the morning he marveled at this hovering windhover, which, flying in place, are considered a symbol of Christ crucified.  Read carefully one finds that it has fewer violations of grammar than it may seem initially, because while every moment the language seems to flow and rush in transcendent association, the verbal sense is still maintained smoothly, even while the description performs its wild maneuvers. It reminds me that fire that is the most beautiful thing.