In sonnet 43 Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes the soul reaching to surpass the feeling of disconnection from “the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”
She speaks to the mystery of thought and feeling contained yet unbounded by love. The transcendent state is measured by physical criterion of breadth, height, depth, reach, and by everyday items which confer the passing of time, “sun”, “candle-light”, “breath”. The sonnet’s ardent logic, its repetitions and intensity create an interior world of “breath” and “breadth”, as it structures love’s fabric as paradoxical and conflicted, made more intense by the awareness of death. Barrett Browning had written from an early age. Having experienced the grief of her two brothers’ untimely deaths, she suffered from depression. She defied her obsessively controlling father and the moral and emotional strictures of her Victorian upbringing. Her forty-four love sonnets, written in the Petrarchan form explore the doubts, passions, fears, discernments of her affair and elopement with Robert Browning with remarkable clarity. Sonnet 43, from which I’ve quoted, is the most famous but my favourite is Sonnet 22, which decries the ministering of ideals, the “golden orb of perfect song”. There is irony, darkness, Eros, Thanatos, and a quiet validation of the real, its “deep, dear silence”, the simplicity and fragile impermanence of its disclosures described by the final couplet:
When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvéd point, — what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us, and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd, — where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.
That Barrett Browning titled this sheath of poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese was explained as a way of concealing the confessional nature of the poems. But to publish them in the guise of translations may not have been her true intention. Other biographers point to the term of endearment that Robert had for Elizabeth, “my little Portuguese”. For the Victorians the literary merit of the poems became conflated with the myth, indeed the epistolary dialogue of their love. Yet the letters she wrote to her lover are more conventional in tone, far less subversive than Barrett Browning’s poetry, which covertly dismantles gender differences. She writes back to the tradition of courtly love, addressing the suitor, resisting Platonic sublimation, defining her sexuality, interpreting more than asking to be defined.
What is overlooked is the extent to which Barrett Browning’s poetics are influenced by Luís Vaz de Camões, the Portuguese poet whose sonnets treat the themes of love, odyssey, death and Empire. His epic Os Lusíadas is an encomium to the voyages of Vasco de Gama. Blending history with myth, it subsumes pagan elements into a Christian ethos that became part of the driving force of colonialism.
Camões travelled to Goa, Egypt, the Malabar Coast, Macau and spent two years an invalid in Mozambique. He wrote in exile and imprisonment and although he died in poverty, his lyrics and prose writing influenced the likes of Wordsworth, Byron, Elizabeth Bishop, Herman Melville and many others. In the 1900’s the Camonean theme became a popular subject for poems. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Catarina To Camoens”, derives from the devotion of Camões for his dying lover of the Portuguese court. Her poem romantically explores the terrains of exile, death, solitude, devotion and may be read as an address to her lover, Robert. Elizabeth was more an innovator than a translator. Though she read neither Portuguese nor Spanish, clearly she was inspired by Camões.
Even more historically obscured is that Barrett Browning was the daughter of an absentee slave owner. Her paternal family wealth had been founded on a Jamaican slave plantation. In fact her father’s roots could be traced back to 1655 when Cromwell’s troops arrived in the Spanish colony, while her mother’s family had been ship owners in the slave colony and colonial public men. Barrett Browning’s father received 7800 pounds in compensation for 397 slaves who were emancipated by the abolition of slavery in 1833. Absorbing his view, at that time, she held the belief that compensation for human property was appropriate.
Robert Browning also had family connections with the West Indies, a reflection of how common these connections were in 19th century Europe, so deeply embedded as it was in the economic industries of Empire. When the couple eloped, Elizabeth identified herself as “Elizabeth Barrett of Wimpole St and Cinnamon Hill, Jamaica”, and the darkness of her skin colour is recorded in several accounts. Elizabeth’s elopement severed the ties to her father and her fortune, a price she paid for creative independence.
Slavery disturbed her, deeply. In 1845 she was asked to write an emancipation poem for The Liberty Bell, a publication sold at the Boston National Anti-Slavery Bazaar. The poem’s indictment of slavery is a distancing of her own family’s economic reliance upon it. The objectified narrator of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is a black slave who is raped by white men and commits infanticide because she recognises the face of her oppressor in her white baby. Barrett Browning’s portrayal is of a sexually and racially oppressed enslaved black woman who calls for rebellion. Yet the only freedom that could be imagined for this woman was death. In letters to Robert Browning, Elizabeth alludes to the anxieties of her lineage. Browning scholars (such as Julia Markus of Hofstra University NY, and Catherine Hall from UCL) have pointed to the evidence for mixed blood lines in both Robert and Elizabeth’s ancestry and to Elizabeth’s belief in her black blood.
“My true initials are E.B.M.B. my long name, as opposed to my short one being Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett.. So long it is, that to make it portable, I fell into the habit of doubling it up and packing it closely .. and of forgetting that I was a Moulton altogether. Yet our name is Moulton Barrett and my brother sometimes for sacrificing the governorship of an old town in Norfolk,” (this being where Moulton came from.) Elizabeth goes on to say, -“I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave! Cursed we are from generation to generation.”
It is worthwhile to consider how historical or biographical occlusions inaugurate monocultural interpretations in Western literature. With what kinds of filters do we erase differences, hybridity and miscegenation in our literature and its canons? Can the unspeakable be voiced with dignity?
Whatever alleles of skin pigment were present in her genes, a revisionist reading of Barrett Browning’s poetry that does not sanitise her Jamaican background enables us to appreciate the sources from which her lyrics spring, transcending the conditions of love, exile, separation and enslavement.