Menage a trois with Elizabeth Barrett Browning

There’s three of us in this relationship.

ebbSo today is the birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was of the Barretts of Wimpole Street, originally Elizabeth Moulton Barrett Barrett (which gives you an idea of her social class) and a reasonably prolific poet while lounging around being ill a lot of the time (another example of her social class in early 19th century England) until her poetry reached out to a man who wrote to her as follows:

I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,–and this is no off-hand complimentary letter rbthat 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 hereafter!–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

Oh, to get this sort of response from one’s writing eh? There followed one of history’s greatest love affairs, complete with secret marriage, and elopement abroad. Elizabeth was prolific as a youngster – her first epic poem The Battle of Marathon was published privately by her father when she was just 14. From the age of 15 she suffered a series of illnesses, the most serious of which remains undiagnosed (but might have been a sort of ME) which blighted her life, but didn’t stop her writing poetry. As most folks did in those days she relied on morphine and laudanum to get her through. And the love of a good poet.

I suppose Elizabeth and Robert might have been seen as a ‘celebrity’ couple in today’s parlance; they certainly mixed with all the social and literary elite of their time. I would never have met or mixed with them in real life that’s for sure. But because they were writers and I a reader, I did get to meet them and form a relationship of sorts. It is through their poetry that I first got to know them, individually, and then through their letters that I got to know them as a couple.

As a writer I’ve always had a strange fascination for other writers and their lives. I have looked at the work of others for inspiration. I like primary source material. I like ‘comparative analysis’ between writers and within writers work. I am an inveterate reader of letters and the sort of ‘background’ stuff of writers lives. (Maybe I’m just nosey, or should have pursued a career in ‘intelligence’.) Anyway at one point many years ago I embarked upon trying to write a play which brought together three love stories based on the relationships of Robert and Elizabeth, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier. Which meant reading all their love letters. You might think that’s a voyeuristic thing to do, but it was a very enjoyable and enlightening experience. Like so many writing projects, this one never came to light – except as a commissioned piece about Rupert and Noel when she stood him up (as she was wont to do) at New Galloway station in darkest Galloway, and I, fictionally, kept the date. You can read it free here.

It’s funny but these days I find it hard to think of Elizabeth without Robert and Robert without Elizabeth and it seems somewhat disrespectful to celebrate her birthday without giving him a bit of airplay too. My first introduction to Robert Browning was that his collection Men and Women  was the first text I taught during my career as an English tutor, and the text was consequently prepared to the nth degree. I was going to be sure I could answer ANY question about him. I wasn’t going to be caught out by a student in my first class! Browning isn’t considered an ‘easy’ poet but he certainly repays the effort. And, as his letter to EBB shows, he has a talent for the snappy line. His poetry is full of great lines, couplets, aphorisms and the like. My favourite is

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? (Andrea del Sarto)

Elizabeth and Robert were clever writers. Inspired by classics and members of the cultural elite. They might seem to be old fashioned and out of touch with our modern concerns. But there are times when its worth revisiting them. Like on a birthday. I seldom read Elizabeth or Robert  these days. Our relationship was at its strongest when I was teaching. But, like all good friends, you can ignore them for ages and when you come back to them, they are still there, still your friend.


Life moves on, people come and go, times change. And we don’t take enough time to reflect. But times like this, when we do, we find memories and moments that we had completely forgotten about and a whole new set of connections can be established. A student from that first tutorial class studying Browning gave me a present which I still treasure. It’s a calfskin leather volume of Sonnets from the Portugese.

It is one of the finest books I own. It has coloured front and back pages.



When I took it down from the shelf to photograph for this piece, I leafed through it and found Sonnet XIV. And remembered that back in the day when I was teaching poetry I set several sonnets to music to show my students that it could be done. And that the rhythm of sonnets was more flexible than the rigid ‘rules’ suggest.  That you don’t have to read iambic pentameter in a forced way. To explain that Sonnet came from the Italian ‘sonare’ (little song) I haven’t thought of it, or played it in twenty years but I remembered it clearly and so, unrehearsed (and with much cursing in finding leads and the means of getting it up on YouTube) here is my version of that excellent sonnet. Apologies for the voice!

Here is the sonnet:

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, … for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.

Sonnets from the Portugese and Men and Women. They kind of go together like, well, like Elizabeth and Robert. And if you read any poetry this week, why not give them a try?

You can download them for free for ereaders from Project Guthenberg.

Sonnets from the Portugese

Men and Women.

Interestingly enough, my next writers birthday, this Friday, also has a Portugese connection! I look forward to seeing you there.


About callyphillips

5 Responses to Menage a trois with Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  1. dennishamley says:

    Terrific, Cally. You know how highly I regard RB: I find him as good as WS for an apposite quotation for every day. I admire EB as well: one of the many brilliant Victorian women doomed to the private arts like poetry rather than the public arts like painting because society decreed it. Kathleen calls her Christina Rossetti biography ‘Learning not to be First’ and that’s about it. RB saw through that as well and did something about it. I really enjoyed this piece.

  2. Bill Kirton says:

    Great, Cally. The aphorism you quote is one that I trot out fairly regularly, too. But when I read Robert (at school) it was the drama of his monologues that grabbed me and lines such as “Again the cousin’s whistle? Go, my love.” (Andrea del Sarto maybe?) are still as emotionally charged as they were back then for that teenaged schoolboy.

  3. Julia Jones says:

    Wow! That copy of Sonnets from the Portugese is sensational. What a present. I’m busy preparing sessions for children with literacy problems in Jaywick (Clacton badlands). Somehow I don’t think anything like that will be coming my way!

  4. Ah Cally – I came over all romantic and misty eyed just reading it! Last year I visited the apartment in Florence where the Brownings lived in supposed blissful harmony, where she wrote Aurora Leigh about men’s oppression of women and he wrote ‘Oh to be in England now that April’s here’. There’s another story in there I think. But then he put up such a wonderful marble tomb for her. I still find Browning difficult and lots of EBB, but love the sonnets and Aurora Leigh is an absolute masterpiece. Happy birthday Elizabeth!

  5. Thanks folks, I thought this birthday would strike a chord with ‘the more discerning’ blog reader!!!

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