On My Conversation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning
A thousand years ago, when I was quite young and reading my grandparents’ de-accessioned Reader’s Digest Condensed Books in order, I read The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Because it was there, of course, and for no other reason. After all this time I have a vague recollection of Elizabeth’s overbearing and overprotective father, a man who was determined to keep her from her one true love, and who was so angered by her elopement that he refused to acknowledge her letters from Italy–even black-bordered ones.
Since then I have developed a relationship with Robert Browning, primarily through his dramatic monologues. “My Last Duchess” and especially “Porphyria’s Lover” always go over well with high school kids (which says quite a bit about the mindset of 17-year-olds). Yet Elizabeth and I have never really seen eye-to-eye. I think it might have something to do with her florid Victorian language: for some reason, I had never been able to cut through that to get to the understanding, as the poet Dawn Potter says, that her Sonnets from the Portuguese “are so emotionally vulnerable–helpless in the face of feeling and desire.” Sadly, until fairly recently, I’ve been far too impatient–or far too cynical?–a reader for her.
Until recently. I’m a better reader now, especially since I’ve begun to read poems to my classes
every day, whether they like it or not. When, back in October, I read one of Elizabeth’s sonnets to my kids, I suddenly felt the urge to talk to her about it. Of course, she’s dead, so obviously, my response was a bit one-sided. I made that complaint to my writing class, who are super in every way, and they suggested I go back to the Sonnets from the Portuguese and read more of what Elizabeth had to say. Thus, suddenly, a writing project was born.
I went back to the beginning. One morning I printed out the first of those sonnets, and carried it around with me all day, reading and re-reading it. What on earth was she trying to say to me? Quite a bit, I began to understand. At the end of the day, I wrote back. The next day, I did the same thing with the second sonnet. Then the next day, the third. I fell into a groove. The conversation flourished. I read more, I read more deeply, I thought more, I knew more. It became something I looked forward to, more than I could have ever imagined.
I had called the first piece “Anti-Sonnet.” It had 14 lines; the lines had ten syllables–most of the time iambic; but I modified Elizabeth’s rhyme scheme (my excuse there is that
someone has stolen my beloved rhyming dictionary from my classroom), and chose to end with a couplet, though that structure is not among my favorites, because of what I perceive to be a certain heavy-handedness. When, at period 6’s insistence, I moved on to the second, and the third, and onward, I adhered to the same rules I had made up for the first. I’ve kept it up. Elizabeth wrote 44. I decided I’d respond to her 44, with “Anti-Sonnet” as a kind of introduction, for a total of 45. Today I’m writing the forty-fifth one. I have conversed with Elizabeth every day since the end of October. I think I might understand where she’s coming from a bit better now. I certainly don’t feel cynicism where she is concerned–not any longer.
Part of the fun of this conversation, too, has been that every morning I’ve typed up the previous day’s attempt, and sent it on to the women of Simply Not Done. They have been my first readers for years now. They also understand the evolution of this project: how the two characters–the persona speaker and the beloved–have moved around one another; how early on, a narrative arc began to build, as though the pieces were chapters in a story; and how, because of the ideas that presented themselves as I read my daily Elizabeth, the story came into being non-chronologically. I have asked Brenda and Becky–and my teacher-friend Karen–to help me re-order them as soon as I’ve finished today’s 45th poem, so that they’ll make more narrative sense. Once the pieces are rearranged, however, they will need some revision in order to be a smooth, coherent whole. I’m looking forward to that: the project, once the project’s finished.
Back to Dawn Potter, though. Her book Tracing Paradise came about, she says, because she never understood or appreciated John Milton fully until she decided to write out all twelve books of Paradise Lost; through the exercise, she began to own that masterpiece. Though I did not choose to write out all Elizabeth’s sonnets, by carrying around a poem every day, and then choosing a line to write to, my conversation let me own that work. I’m excited to have come to the last day of the project, but I’m sad, too: I’m going to miss Elizabeth. We’ve become friends, in a weird sort of way.
So. Thanks to 6th period for getting me started. Thanks to Dawn, for giving me a reason to continue. Thanks to Simply Not Done, for putting up with my daily Elizabeth. Thanks in advance to Karen, too. But mostly, thanks to Elizabeth. Love ya, babe.
Because I’m not a couplet fan, I have spent much of the past six weeks agonizing over ways to make them less heavy-handed. I’ve also spent much of that time complaining to my first readers about them. But I think I might be on to something, after forty-five days and forty-five attempts. You should see the creative ways I’ve broken up the last two lines in my poems, playing with sentences and enjambment and all those fun things. If this exercise hasn’t given me new and exciting ways to play with language, I don’t know if anything can.