Saturday, 13 February 2010

HOW DO I LOVE THEE?

On this Valentine's Day and the VV has been thinking about the Victorian lovers - the poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.

No doubt the VV's childhood was heavily influenced by all of those wet Sunday afternoons when sitting in front of the televison,watching such classics as the 1934 MGM film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

It told the romantic story of the invalid, Elizabeth Barrett, who was wooed by Robert Browning when he fell in love with her poetry.
Fredric March was Robert Browning. Norma Shearer played Elizabeth

Or, could those memories be confused with the English version of 1957 in which the glamorous, young Jennifer Jones played the part of our fragile heroine - with little concession to the fact that Elizabeth Barrett was actually forty years old at the time of her marriage to Browning.

Nevertheless, much of the film was based in fact, recounting the story of how Elizabeth's possessive and domineering father had been utterly opposed to the thought of his daughter leaving home - providing all the elements of a grand, Victorian melodrama.


Elizabeth was to run away and marry Browning in secrecy before they travelled to Italy. They lived together for 15 years and Elizabeth bore her husband a son before her health finally declined and, in 1861 - the same year as Queen Victoria was to lose her beloved Prince Albert - she died in her husband's arms.

But, their love lives on through their writing. Over the 20 months of their courtship the couple produced almost 600 letters, and Browning's passion was evident from the start when, before they had even met, he wrote this gushing fan letter - nothing short of a declaration of love -


January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,--and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,--whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me--for in the first flush of delight I thought I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration--perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of herafter!--but nothing comes of it all--so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew... oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away... and the book called a 'Flora', besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought--but in this addressing myself to you, your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart-- and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning "would you like to see Miss Barrett?"--then he went to announce me,--then he returned... you were too unwell -- and now it is years ago--and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels--as if I had been close, so close, to some world's-wonder in chapel on crypt,... only a screen to push and I might have entered -- but there was some slight... so it now seems... slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!

Well, these Poems were to be--and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself. Yours ever faithfully Robert Browning


Elizabeth wasted little time in expressing her own affection for him, and below is her 43rd Sonnet - which was later published in a book entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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 everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
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.






8 comments:

  1. What a wonderful Valentine's day tribute. It makes our commercialized red-heart and sugar-coated V. Day's seem trivial and crass in comparison. How Do I Love Thee always bears another reading.

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  3. Wonderful collection of information, poetry and images. Thank you! You have the knack of bringing stories to life in your posts. I am very much enjoying them all.

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  4. Beautiful and timely VV. I don't know whether the Brownings are ignored nowadays but I don't seem to see them quoted as often as they should be. Some of his monologues (My Last Duchess, Andrea del Sarto with its heart-rending last line, etc., etc.) are stunning - and I'm forever trotting out his "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?"
    Thanks for this lovely reminder.

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  5. Jane, that is very kind and much appreciated.

    Ken - very true - though I have to say a new post is well over due, and I must try to rectify that today...

    Essie

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  6. Oh I LOVED the Barretts of Wimpole Street and the Barrett/Browning love story is so powerful and enduring. Fabulous post, as ever!

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  7. Thanks, Deb - this is an older post, but I couldn't resist reviving it for Valentine's Day.

    Essie

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