« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
Bird or serpent, wild or tame,
She shall guess, and ask in vain ;
But, if Pluto does 't again,
What hast caught then ? What hast caught?
[From Death's Jest Book, Act v.]
Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
And through every feather
Leaked the wet weather ;
Is that the wind dying ? O no;
In the ghosts' moonshine.
Ho! Eva, my grey carrion wife,
When we have supped on kings' marrow, Where shall we drink and make merry our life 7 Our nest it is Queen Cleopatra's skull,
'Tis cloven and cracked,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full :
Is that the wind dying? O no ;
In the ghosts' moonshine,
If there were dreams to sell
What would you buy ?
Some a light sigh,
What would you buy?
A cottage lone and still,
With bowers nigh,
Until I die.
This would I buy.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
[BORN 1809: died 1861. Published Prometheus Bound and other poems, 1835; the Seraphim and other poems, 1838; Romaunt of the Page, 1839; two volumes of Poems, 1844; married Robert Browning, 1846 ; published Casa Guidi Windows, 1848 ; Aurora Leigh, 18;6; Poems before Congress, 1860. The Last Poems were published posthumously in 1862, with a dedication to 'grateful Florence,' in allusion to the inscription on the tablet which after her death the city of Florence had put up in her honour.)
Elizabeth Barrett began verse-making at a very early age. Besides the unacknowledged Essay on Mind, an attempt in the style of l'ope, which was written when she was a mere girl, she translated Prometheus Bound before she was twenty. Writing to her friend Mr. Horne, under the date of Oct. 5, 1843, she says:
* Most of iny events and nearly all my intense pleasures have passed in my thoughts. I wrote verses--as I daresay many have done who never wrote any poeins - very early; at eight years old and earlier.. But, what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me, and from that day to this poetry has been a distinct object with me, an object to read, think. and live for. And I could make you laugh, although you could not make the public laugh, by the narrative of nascent odes, epics, and didactics crying aloud on obsolete Muses from childish lips.' Her life seems to have been a happy one till she was growing into womanhood. Then two things happened, at no great distance of time frorn one another, which altered and saddened it. Of the impression she made upon all who saw her before her great trial and sorrow came upon her let her old and tried friend Miss Mitford speak :
“My first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett commenced about fifteen pears ago. She was certainly one of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same; so that it is not merely the impression of my partiality or my enthusiasm. Of a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes richly fringed by dark eyelashes, a smil: like a sunteam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend in whose carriage we went together to Chiswick that the translatress of the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was 0 1. Through the kindness of another invaluable friend, to whom I owe many oblig ons, but none so great as this, I saw much of her during my stay in town. We met so constantly and so familiarly, that in spite of the difference of age, intimacy ripened into friendship, and aster my return into the country we corresponded freely and frequently, her letters being just what letters ought to be- her own talk put upon paper.'
The beginning of her trials came next year, when she broke a blood-vessel upon the lungs, which refused to heal. On the approach of winter the family doctor ordered her to a warmer climate, and her elder brother, who seems by all accounts to have been worthy of his sister, accompanied her to Torquay. His death by drowning—the sailing boat in which he was sank in sight of the house, and the body was not recovered-nearly killed his sister. She conceived a horror of Torquay, and had to be brought back to London in an invalid carriage. “Returned to London,' says Miss Mitford, “she began the life which she continued for so many years, confined to one large and commodiously darkened chamber, admitting only her own affectionate family and a few devoted friends . . . . reading almost every book worth reading in almost every language, and giving herself heart and soul to that poetry of which she seemed born to be the priestess.' This way of life lasted for many years. It was dignified by high thinking and strenuous endeavour, and sweetened by the intercourse of a few congenial minds ; but it was wholly outside the main current of the world, and it threw the poetess to an excessive extent upon her own inner consciousness for the materials of her poetry. This fact explains some of the defects of which we are conscious in a sustained reading of her poetical works. If her muse seems to dwell in a somewhat transcendental atmosphere, a little remote from the realities of the work-a-day world, if her portrayal of human nature is a little wanting in complexity and variety, and hardly seems born of contact with men and women as they are, that is not to be wondered at.
Her happy marriage listed her out of the bookish seclusion in which she had lived for many years ; and the immediate strength and activity which happiness brought with it makes us suspect that hitherto her friends and relations had encouraged her into thinking herself more of an invalid than she really was. The new and stirring world of political and intellectul activity into which her residence in Italy now transported her, soon made its way into her poetry, and left its mark. But the effects of her long seclusion never wore out, though here and there we may find them obliterated for a moment ; and in the most ambitious of her later poems, Aurora Leigh (a noble and admirable effort, though we should hardly agree with Mr. Ruskin in calling it 'the greatest poem which the century has produced in any language '), we feel the lack of that sure and sane knowledge of human nature which, as Miss Mitford truly said,-though the remark was not intended to apply to her friend,-is 'the salt of literature.'
One thing at all events Elizabeth Barrett gained from her years of studious seclusion an accurate knowledge of most of the great poetry of the world. Her knowledge of Greek was wide if not profound, and she was familiar with the chief modern literatures. She had read English poetry with a thoroughness and a dis.. crimination which is testified as much by her Vision of Poets as by her Essay on English Poetry. The English poets of her own day were intimately known to her. Her first volume shows traces of study of Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, and the study has been deep enough to result rather in assimilation than imitation. Later on she became a great admirer of Tennyson, whom she called 'a divine poet,' though she warmly disclaimed the charge of imitating him. She may be described essentially as a learned poetess, and her wide knowledge of poetical forms explains her readiness to invent or reproduce difficult and elaborate metres. With these difficulties she has not always contended successfully. Her rhymes are often illegitimate, her words often far-fetched, and occasionally even ungrammatical. The splendid dash and energy with which she throws herself at a difficult piece of work should not blind us to the fact that after all its difficulties are sometimes evaded rather than met. She will not have it that this is for any want of due care or industry on her part. Writing to Mr. Horne, she says in terms very similar to those employed by Wordsworth in rebutting a similar charge :
'If I fail ultimately before the public—that is before the people, for an ephemeral popularity does not appear to me worth trying for—it will not be because I have shrunk from the amount of labour, where labour could do anything. I have worked at poetry; it has not been with me reverie, but art. As the physician and lawyer work at their several professions, so have I, and 50 do I, apply to mine. And this I say, only to put by any charge of care rossness which may rise up to the verge of your lips or thoughts.'