EnglishCoachPodcast.com Episode 61
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Featured Works: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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The poem you just heard is from an originally private collection of love poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her then husband to be Robert Browning.
This short poem – resonates with spirituality and follows the structure of what is known as a Petrarchan sonnet – comprising 14 lines, broken up into an octave (of 8 lines) and a sestet (of 6 lines).
The rhyme scheme, and base meter of the poem are to me ambiguous, and I will leave that interpretation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s intent – as to the form of the poem – to the professionals. I was newly attracted to her use (among other things) of “enjambment” – the running of a single thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break. Owing especially to this reason I think the rhythm of reading it might vary – depending on the reader, and the reader’s personal interpretation of the work.
In the first octave Barrett Browning explores the present situation or problem. Then – with the use of a volta or a turn – a solution or comment is made on the preceding octave or section; she takes a turn at the beginning of the sestet – where she expands her verse to explore that past and the future.
The overall the poem describes an all-encompassing love which seems to defy and transcend time and space, as it emerges from the mundane and understood – into something whose proportions – while well rooted in the everyday, eventually unfolds into a gravitational mass.
With the use of “Spatial metaphor” Browning skilfully poses the quality of her love to depict a strong contrast between its own would-be normal, measurable aspects, then with its portrayal – of having exceeded these normal measures. Her use of “Spatial metaphor” also helps to scope and to express the tactile, physical dimensions and mass of her love in terms of the “depth and breadth and height”.
Upon suggesting that the body of her love can be enumerated in such a way, she adds more emphasis to the three dimensionality and tactility of it, with the use of “polysyndeton”. This is described as multiple use of a coordinating conjunction – in this case her use of “and” many times. She then goes on to suggest that her love actually surpasses these methods (measures) – and can in fact, be better depicted on an even larger canvas – one that transcends – into the spiritual realm – into the unknown reaches of the soul – revivifying its intensity.
It is no attempt in any way on my part – to deprecate Barrett’s expression when I ask myself “Who knows where the soul can reach?” considering the fact – that the resonance of this love reaches us from her – even today.
I can also note that Barrett Browning uses something called “anaphora” – the repetition of ‘I love thee’ almost nine times. This does not come across as though she is trying to convince herself of her own love – but as skilful articulation of what is to her – familiar conviction.
“Thee” is an old form of “you” – which perhaps wasn’t even used in her time any more – however she chose to use it nonetheless – for nostalgic reasons I suppose.
The words – soul, being, grace, faith, saint, God and death – help to add that distinct spiritual quality to this work.
I am not entirely sure if the question with which the poem begins – introduces the profound answer to a question actually asked by her then love interest – or a rhetorical question simply arising out of self-reflection. What I do know is that this poem was first written as part of a private collection, and was actually originally hidden from even her love interest at the time.
The line in the poem which says “.. when feeling out of sight – for the ends of being and ideal grace” – is beyond me, I can only sense the meaning. She wishes I suspect – to evoke a real feeling – one I suspect characterized by a note of perpetual yearning for an ever vanishing but very real horizon – a leisurely joyous longing of sorts for a perfect, perhaps unreal ideal. Her very real love is portrayed here, as not only spanning the space – between that with which we are present – but also reaching into and beyond – the ends that lie, fleeting and persistently distanced – as though almost out of peripheral view.
Let’s bear in mind that this poem might have originally been meant to be a private personal reflective.
“I love thee to the level of every day’s – Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light” is a good example of “enjambment” – a single thought that bridges multiple lines and depicting her love as a thing that in an understood, and unspoken way even – envelopes all the phases of the day – literally every typical day, all day – and all night.
“I love thee freely, as men strive for right; I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” to me speaks to the resoluteness of her love – though surrounded by noise. The noise of others who perhaps don’t know what she knows, the noise as they try to articulate and even seek to evangelize with their own truths and ideals and disenchantments and with praise to their own idols and to their own ends / purposes.
It could also mean that she compares her love with the conviction with which people generally try to do the right thing in life.
It could mean that she loves one person and remains resolute, in spite of the attention she might have been receiving from other men – who strive for rights to her affections, and over her life.
When Elizabeth speaks of passion in old griefs and childhood’s faith, I think she likens the intensity of her feeling – to that of past pain, and the pure innocence of childhood imagination and beliefs. In the same breath she appears to speak of a similar intensity associated with the sense of loss she felt when those more childlike world views as they related to saintly figures in her life – eventually matured.
The last three lines of the poem start out with a fairly grounded comparison with common expressions of emotions, marked by smiles and tears. She ends the poem however with the promise, that for her – “God willing” – this love will continue to unfold even after death.
Naturally proper analysis of this poem takes time and could follow Barrett’s love into the beyond, so we’ll just keep it at that although there are of course many more facets to the poem. Not only more literary device, but others facets of course, having to do with her somewhat unique history.
As flowery and emotional as this work might have come across, this is not exactly the work of a lightweight. Barrett Browning was the daughter and granddaughter of Jamaican slave owners. Being Herself of mixed heritage, that aspect of her formative years coupled with all the then intrinsic attachments of state sanctioned subjugation, disenfranchisement, and violence of all forms against a people – is of course echoed strongly in her work. Poignant political sensitivities also borne of personal experience informed her work… The well nurtured skillset of her tyrannical father wielded the same whip of oppression of his own children – according to historical accounts he didn’t want any of them to get married. In addition to that, being a woman in the 1800s – and owing to the critically political weight of her body of works – it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to express her literature meaningfully and to get published back in the day.
While her siblings managed slave plantations in Jamaica, she educated herself in England, and eventually had to elope – to get away from the tyranny of her slaver-father to marry her love interest in Italy. She is said to have been in turn disinherited of the family fortune. Her entire life, sensitivities, and expressions were plagued and enriched by pain, compromise, and tragedy.
She endured, what I imagine to have been, a splintered existence between the legacy of slavery that fed her – and what she knew for herself to be right and that which was intrinsically wrong. As a result of these, she is sadly reputed to also have been addicted to morphine – which also might have also had some influence on her sensory perceptions at times.
Barrett Browning is said to have been in large part self-taught, though she did have significant mentors during her career as a poet. Barrett Browning went on to become more radicalized – and influenced British popular political thought on issues such as Italian reunification, the rights of women, and the abolition of slavery. She was also obviously – more of an abolitionist persuasion – as evidenced by her works “A Curse For A Nation”– in which even the angels sound resolutely wicked and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” – in this particular piece she reflects on and converses with – the controversial realms of infanticide committed against a child borne of rape by a slave owner – and his eventual murder of her the mother – and all with a certain empathy. Very dark indeed.
Transcript and further readings – linked in the shownotes.
So there we have it, Episode 61 – the final episode for 2021, and part of the ongoing Poetry Series. She had a good sense of contrast this Barrett Browning, and if I were to meet the woman in the spirit somewhere in the void – I’d love to talk with her on black and white photography – among other things of course. Truth be told I think I was first introduced to this poem at a young age. I had no idea about Barrett Browning’s rich Jamaican heritage when I first voiced it on December 8th for this episode and as my contribution to the Poetry Series today – three weeks later. I’m very glad to have started with this one – epic verse borne of blood and contradiction.
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning – 1806-1861
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.
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Thanks for listening, looking forward to hearing from you and bye for now.
Ian Antonio Patterson – ShowHost
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