An Ode to Love
So last year I wrote a special blog on love (or lack thereof really!) so I thought I’d continue the tradition this Valentine’s Day. This time something a little more positive.
The other day I took out a book on poetry from the library and unfortunately I wasn’t able to read it all. I picked it up, put it in my bag to return and just started reading a few pages. The book happened to flip back to the last pages which contained letters from 1845 onward. After reading the first one I couldn’t seem to stop reading!
They were excerpts from letters written between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and contained, as has been said, the most romantic literary exchange ever written in history.
Some background: Elizabeth was born in England in 1806 the eldest of 12 children. She started writing poetry when she was 8. By 20 she had written her first epic poem. Her mother died when she was 22 and the family’s estate was sold when her father’s Jamaican investments went south. She was always very ill and begged to go to the seaside with her favorite brother for her health. Unfortunately her brother drowned in a boating accident there. She returned heartbroken. She was an invalid and stayed mostly to her rooms for years writing poetry. In 1844, when she was in her thirties, she published ‘Poems’ and in it she mentioned a fellow poet, Robert Browning.
In January 1845, Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett to express his great admiration for her poetry. It would be the first of almost 600 letters exchanged by the two almost every day over a period of 20-months until their marriage in September 1846.
Browning’s first letter begins: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett…so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours. ”
The following day Barrett replies: “I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. Such a letter from such a hand! You draw me on with your kindness.”
Elizabeth Barrett was six years older than Browning. Both were published and known poets at the time their correspondence began. In an era of great reserve, it is remarkable to read through these letters and observe that in a relatively brief period the letters from both evolve from professional kindness to friendship, from affection to devotion, and then passion.
When you read the letters the emotions, feelings and life just jump off the page. I found Robert Browning to be more the romantic, writing often of his love and devotion, indeed from the very first letter! Elizabeth continually wrote about her doubts to his wanting to marry an invalid like her and described sad events of her life. They often discussed literature and poetry and never failed to invoke God’s blessings on the other.
One year after their correspondence began, Robert wrote to Elizabeth: “I _do_ love you, plainly, surely, more than ever, more than any day in my life before. It is your secret, the why, the how; the experience is mine. What are you doing to me?–in the heart’s heart.
And Elizabeth replied:
“And you love me _more_, you say?–Shall I thank you or God? Both,–indeed–and there is no possible return from me to either of you! I thank you as the unworthy may … and as we all thank God. How shall I ever prove what my heart is to you? How will you ever see it as I feel it? I ask myself in vain.“
Their letters grew in intensity in the months leading up to their marriage on September 12, 1846. Her father did not approve of any of his children marrying and disinherited them if they did, so they decided to elope to Italy. They married in secret a week prior to their departure. Her father never spoke to her again.
Barrett achieved fame earlier than Browning and her works were more widely read throughout the years of their marriage. Elizabeth Barrett was living the life of a recluse in her father’s home for the five years prior to her relationship with Robert Browning. She was uncertain in their early years together that his love for her was as deep as he claimed it to be. In her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” she famously wrote of her devotion for Robert, words that live on today as some of the most moving ever expressed about the “depth and breath of love”.
“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 candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a 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.”
The two lovers stayed in Italy. Elizabeth’s brothers and father never forgave her for marrying without his permission. They had one child together, Robert Barrett Browning, nicknamed ‘Peni’, born in 1849. The cause of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death is unknown. She died in Robert’s arms less than fifteen years after their marriage, on June 29, 1861. Browning died in 1889 and in his “Life in a Love:” wrote these words for his Elizabeth:
“Escape me? Never – Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both…”
I can’t but read these letters and be extremely touched by such an absolute love; written forever in pen and proofed by history. It’s stunning in its intensity. How much he loved her, and how much she loved him. Living in this world I can’t help but become cynical about love. I see married couples and often it’s an exchange of goods and services, it’s societal or cultural or expected. I don’t think I’ve ever been witness to such extreme selfless love.
How does one fall in love with another person based upon their words, knowing they are older, an invalid, not beautiful, knowing the family opposition, knowing what the world thinks, leaving everything and everyone. A love that would have existed without even meeting, without even marriage. What did he love then? Her spirit, her soul??! That amount of feeling and caring and…love. How do people find that?? I wish I could have found something even close to that in my life. Perhaps it only comes once in an age like all these great one’s we know of, Romeo & Juliet, Shireen & Farhad or only by extraordinary people like Muhammad (s) & Khadija (ra).
I don’t know. I just found it quite remarkable in its beauty.
Happy Eid al-Hubb everyone!
P.S to husbands – Throughout his courtship he constantly sent her flowers