Hurrah! I have found poetry that spoke to me, poetry that I understood, poetry that I enjoyed! Loved, in fact. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you wonderful poet! You have proved that my search for poetry that I can connect with was not futile as many (including myself) suspected it would be!
When my sister Becky got married a couple years ago, she bought Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese for her husband, Rami, as a wedding gift. Sonnets is a collection of love poems that Ms Barrett wrote for her future husband, Robert Browning, before they married. I’ve wanted to read them ever since Becky bought them, especially as Jason has been telling me forever that he thinks I would like Ms Browning’s poetry. After my last bad experience with a book of poetry, I sat down and picked three more volumes of poetry I wanted to try before I gave up. Sonnets was one of them.
I’m so glad I read this. From the very first poem, I connected with the poet. I could feel her love, her fear, her yearning, and all the newness that was in this love for her. I loved her use of words, like the first two lines of poem 24:
Let the world’s sharpness, like a clasping knife,
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
While I normally don’t understand poetry, especially with all its tangled language and metaphors, I understood nearly every word of Sonnets. Three poems in particular spoke strongly to me: 6, 11, and 26. I’m not going to include them all, but I wanted to post #6, because this one touched me so deeply that I literally cried at the end. I sat there on my couch with tears silently rolling down my cheeks. I never expected to be so touched by poetry, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning awoke something inside me that I didn’t know existed.
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore–
They touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.
Gah. I’m not sure that putting the poem here alone does it justice. It means so much more following the five before it, with more coming after. While the Sonnets are all individual poems, they follow a thread, to be read one after another, like a longer poem broken into fragments. They touch on so many phases of love, from how much she loves him, how much she aches from her love, to the fear that she isn’t worthy and the fear his love will fade, to his love overcoming all her fears and problems, his love bringing her out of herself, to finally, an acceptance of their mutual love and an offering of herself to him.
These poems are beautiful. I wish I could quote the whole volume here. They are filled so strongly with passion and emotion; they quiver with it! They tell a whole story without ever saying the words. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. I know a little bit about the Brownings’ relationship to each other, but now I’m dying to read more!
My copy of the Sonnets includes other love poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but they were ones polished up to be read by the public at large. I tried reading a few, and compared to the Sonnets they sound empty of emotion, slightly bitter, far more conventional, contrived, and fit into a set form. I don’t know if I liked them. I certainly didn’t when I tried reading them – how could I after such glorious poems? – but I will try them again sometime when I can disentangle them from the Sonnets in my mind. I am definitely looking forward to reading more of Ms Browning’s work now – perhaps even Aurora Leigh! – and I am so happy to have finally had a moment where poetry made sense and spoke to me.