Counting Poetry

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

XLIII
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.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning fascinates me for many reasons. 

Primarily, I worry that most images of her show a woman without a neck. Was that a physical condition? Or is necklessness a sign of poetic greatness? 

It will be remembered that the most famous pictures we have of Shakespeare show ambiguity in the neck area. The Chandos portrait, (left) which we assume is Shakespeare, gives us an image of a man with little to no neck. The cover illustration (right) from Mr William Shakespeares [sic] Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, shows an Elizabethan attempt at photoshopping a neck into existence. 

However, I'm digressing and the absence of a neck is only one of the details that fascinate me about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing is her relationship with Robert Browning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning were two poets living and writing in the same house. Sartre famously said, 'Hell is other people.' I suspect, if he'd given it more thought, he might have said, 'Hell is two poets living in the same house.' This is how I imagine a typical morning would go between the pair:

BOB: Liz, have you got two minutes to read through my latest poem?

LIZ: Only if you've got time to read through one of mine.

SFX - BOB & LIZ exchanging pages.

BOB: What are all these letters at the top of the page? Did you drop a Scrabble bag?

LIZ: No, you thick git. That's the number forty-three. 

BOB: Oh! Well why didn't you just write a number forty-three?

LIZ: I did. It's in Latin. Now will you read the effing poem?

BOB: I will if you read mine.

LIZ: Porphyria's Lover? Is this another one of your rapey poems?

BOB: It's not rapey. She just dies a bit. Did you know you've left capitals on Being, Grace, Right and Praise in your poem? Do I need to go through the rules of capitalisation with you...

And so, I imagine, it would go on. 

I'll be playing from poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Saturday night's radio show. If you fancy hearing more of her marvellous work, please do tune in.

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