Saturday, February 28, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 46 (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
Aurora Leigh And Other Poems


Another unread purchase from the discount store at the Niagara Falls outlest mall. Again, the sale sticker is still on the cover ($3.50) and there is a black remainder mark on the bottom edge. Victorian Era British poetry is about my least favorite in the history of poetry. Tennyson, the Brownings, etc., have never interested me very much. That said, I read the first 20 pages or so of Aurora Leigh today and found it to be a fairly engrossing memoir-poem. I may read it yet!

Here's a little selection about the death of the poet's mother at age four:

And thus beloved, she died. I've heard it said
That but to see him in the first surprise
Of widower and father, nursing me,
Unmothered little child of four years old,
His large man's hands afraid to touch my curls,
As if the gold would tarnish,–his grave lips
Contriving such a miserable smile,
As if he knew needs must, or I should die,
And yet 'twas hard,–would almost make the stones
Cry out for pity. There's a verse he set
In Santa Croce to her memory,
'Weep for an infant too young to weep much
When death removed this mother'–stops the mirth
To-day, on women's faces when they walk
With rosy children hanging on their gowns,
Under the cloister, to escape the sun
That scorches in the piazza. After which,
He left our Florence, and made haste to hide
Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief,
Among the mountains above Pelago;
Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need
Of mother nature more than others use,
And Pan's white goats, with udders warm and full
Of mystic contemplations, come to feed
Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own–
Such scholar-scraps he talked, I've heard from friends,
For even prosaic men, who wear grief long,
Will get to wear it as a hat aside
With a flower stuck in't. Father, then, and child,
We lived among the mountains many years,
God's silence on the outside of the house,
And we, who did not speak too loud, within;
And old Assunta to make up the fire,
Crossing herself whene'er a sudden flame
Which lightened from the firewood, made alive
That picture of my mother on the wall.
The painter drew it after she was dead;
And when the face was finished, throat and hands,
Her cameriera carried him, in hate
Of the English-fashioned shroud, the last brocade
She dressed in at the Pitti. 'He should paint
No sadder thing than that,' she swore, 'to wrong
Her poor signora.' Therefore, very strange
The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
For hours upon the floor, with knees drawn up
And gaze across them, half in terror, half
In adoration, at the picture there,–
That swan-like supernatural white life,
Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
Which seemed to have no part in it, nor power
To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds:
For hours I sate and stared. Asssunta's awe
And my poor father's melancholy eyes
Still pointed that way. That way, went my thoughts
When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew
In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
With still that face . . . which did not therefore change,
But kept the mystic level of all forms
And fears and admirations; was by turn
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,–
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa, with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or, anon,
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
Where the Babe sucked; or, Lamia in her first
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked,
And, shuddering, wriggled down to the unclean;
Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile
In her last kiss, upon the baby-mouth
My father pushed down on the bed for that,–
Or, my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
Buried at Florence. All which images,
Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves
Before my meditative childhood, . . as
The incoherencies of change and death
Are represented fully, mixed and merged,
In the smooth fair mystery of perpetual Life.

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