Sunday Poetry – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

BarrettsJJones

It’s true that once I start thinking of an author or an actor, they seem to pop up everywhere. After posting one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poems last week, I was interested to read this article by Elizabeth Crawford on her blog, Woman and her Sphere. The post reproduces a talk that Elizabeth gave at the Persephone Symposium some years ago when they reprinted Virginia Woolf’s Flush, about Barrett Browning’s dog. The talk was about English women writers in Italy & it’s fascinating so do pop over & read it if you have any interest in writers like Matilda Hays, Ann Radcliffe, Ouida or Elizabeth Von Arnim. Lettice Cooper’s wonderful novel, Fenny, is also mentioned. Elizabeth has written the Introductions to a number of the new Furrowed Middlebrow novels from Dean Street Press & is the editor of Kate Parry Frye’s diary, Campaigning for the Vote & the author of a biography of Kate which I enjoyed very much when I read it a few years ago.

One of the most famous English writers to live in Italy was Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she escaped from Wimpole Street & eloped with Robert Browning. The poem featured in the talk is Casa Guidi Windows. The poem begins as a look through the poet’s window & encompasses her feelings about the Italian liberal movement that was striving for freedom from the Austrian empire. It’s a long poem so here’s just the first section.

I heard last night a little child so singing    
  ’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,    
O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing    
  The same words still on notes he went in search    
So high for, you concluded the upspringing            
  Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch    
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,    
  And that the heart of Italy must beat,    
While such a voice had leave to rise serene    
  ’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street:            
A little child, too, who not long had been    
  By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,    
And still O bella libertà he sang.    
 
Then I thought, musing, of the innumerous    
  Sweet songs which still for Italy outrang            
From older singers’ lips who sang not thus    
  Exultingly and purely, yet, with pang    
Fast sheath’d in music, touch’d the heart of us    
  So finely that the pity scarcely pain’d.    
I thought how Filicaja led on others,            
  Bewailers for their Italy enchain’d,    
And how they call’d her childless among mothers,    
  Widow of empires, ay, and scarce refrain’d    
Cursing her beauty to her face, as brothers    
  Might a sham’d sister’s,—“Had she been less fair            
She were less wretched;”—how, evoking so    
  From congregated wrong and heap’d despair    
Of men and women writhing under blow,    
  Harrow’d and hideous in a filthy lair,    
Some personating Image wherein woe            
  Was wrapp’d in beauty from offending much,    
They call’d it Cybele, or Niobe,    
  Or laid it corpse-like on a bier for such,    
Where all the world might drop for Italy    
  Those cadenced tears which burn not where they touch,—            
“Juliet of nations, canst thou die as we?    
  And was the violet that crown’d thy head    
So over-large, though new buds made it rough,    
  It slipp’d down and across thine eyelids dead,    
O sweet, fair Juliet?” Of such songs enough,            
  Too many of such complaints! behold, instead,    
Void at Verona, Juliet’s marble trough:    
  As void as that is, are all images    
Men set between themselves and actual wrong,    
  To catch the weight of pity, meet the stress            
Of conscience,—since ’tis easier to gaze long    
  On mournful masks and sad effigies    
Than on real, live, weak creatures crush’d by strong.

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