Google is prompting browsers across the land to discover a brilliant Victorian poet. Here's a very brief primer on a bold and brilliant talent
A Google doodle brings Elizabeth Browning to mind this morning on what would have been her 208th birthday. She was an extraordinary woman who fiercely opposed the slavery on which her family's fortune was founded, while struggling with lifelong illness. She was incredibly well-read, though according to her husband and fellow-poet Robert Browning she was "self-taught in almost every respect", and became the first female poet ever to be considered for poet laureate – though Tennyson was chosen to follow Wordsworth instead. But what about the poems? Her work has, arguably, endured better than that of her husband ("Home Thoughts from Abroad" and its "gaudy melon-flower" excepted). Here are a few to get you started:
"How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43) is probably Barrett Browning's most famous poem today. The victim of a thousand wedding readings, it is part of her Sonnets from the Portuguese cycle, and was written during her courtship with Robert Browning.
"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 F
or the ends of being and ideal grace."
Here's another love poem from the Portuguese cycle, too, 14. According to the Poetry Foundation, the title Sonnets from the Portuguese was selected the Brownings "in order to make it appear that the poems had no biographical significance … as if they were translations". The public weren't fooled. "A writer in Fraser's magazine immediately appreciated their distinctive quality: 'From the Portuguese they may be: but their life and earnestness must prove Mrs Browning either to be the most perfect of all known translators, or to have quickened with her own spirit the framework of another's thought, and then modestly declined the honour which was really her own'."
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say,
"I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,— "
Barrett Browning's long narrative poem Aurora Leigh is the story of the eponymous heroine's life, and is, according to its author, "the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered". Virginia Woolf called it "a masterpiece in embryo". It opens:
"OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is."
The Cry of the Children is the poet's look at the lives of children working in mines and factories, and a moving condemnation of child labour. "Even though Barrett was a bookish, sheltered, upper middle-class unmarried woman far removed from the scenes she was describing, she gives evidence here of her passionate concern for human rights," says the Poetry Foundation.
"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep."
A Musical Instrument uses the goat-god Pan to look at the two-fold nature of art.
"WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river."