How Do I Love Thee…

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_1909 - Elizabeth Barrett Browning - The Anniversary I love thee to the level of everyday's most quiet needDo you know that first line? Today I read that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets have some of the most recognizable first lines in the English language. This week I decided to add some Valentine’s Day appropriate study – Victorian love poetry.  Do you have a favorite Victorian love poem? Victorian poetry, or even Victorian sonnets, is a wide topic, surely too much to study properly in one week.  To narrow the field somewhat and make the best use of my time, while still being a bit indulgent, my focus will be on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Theirs is a love story in verse if ever there was one.

Having an actual love story, with a courtship conducted in their verse, to contemplate on Valentine’s Day is nice timing but it also helps me in a few other ways. There is a feminist vein to mine with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work, study of two authors, a potential postcolonial reading and racial themes to consider, and the legacy of the Romantic period to contemplate.  And the Browning’s texts cover a wide arc of time across the Victorian era, which is useful for historical reference and context. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote one of my favorite sonnet collections, ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese.’ It will be wonderful to spend a week reading them over and over.  But I will have to read more than just one of her texts, or even a group of sonnets, so I will also read ‘Aurora Leigh.’  Aurora Leigh is not a love poem, but it is very interesting considering Mrs. Browning’s biography.

Robert Browning’s work is very interesting to me also.  The story of their courtship and marriage, their life together, and Robert Browning’s long life as a widower following her death would make an interesting novel on its own.  My plan is to read a selection of poems from ‘Men and Women’ and his ‘Dramatic Lyrics.’  I’ve read that he wrote several of the poems collected in ‘Men and Women’ while courting Miss Barrett and some might be autobiographical.  For me, the title of the second collection, ‘Dramatic Lyrics’ promises some interesting thinking and reading. Dramatic and lyrical – what an interesting combination, much like the Brownings themselves.

For me the most interesting thing about the Brownings is their relationship as a literary couple.  I love that Robert first wrote to Elizabeth to express admiration of her poetry, and that he encouraged her as an artist and a professional woman throughout their marriage. It is interesting that some criticism suggests their love affair and marriage negatively influenced the themes of their poetry and notes that her focus allegedly shifted from social concerns to love and the expression of more intimate and individual experience.

Just because it is Valentine’s Day and Victorian love poetry seems like a perfect pairing does not mean I can focus only on this course, as appealing as it is.  It helps to review my other courses and determine if topics and themes overlap.  For example, things that interest me about the Victorian period are form and content, sentimentality, gender issues and feminism, art’s response to social issues, the legacy of the Romantic era, and the Pre-Raphaelites.   I can balance study of the Brownings’ texts with selections in my course on ‘The Novel’ and my readings about romance and the ‘Nineteenth-Century American Literature.’  Having that kind of synergy in my study plan is very motivating.

‘The Pathfinder,’ one of James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘Leatherstocking Tales’ and Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’ could make interesting reading juxtaposed to the Brownings’ texts . I can listen to Donizetti’s ‘Lucia’ and think about love and desire as a theme in poetry and in the other texts I am studying.  To paraphrase Catherine Belsey, ‘…once I started researching love and desire as a theme I could not remember why I had ever studied anything else!’ Do you have a favorite love poem? Do share… Meanwhile, happy Valentine’s Day from America.

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.

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