Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Group Writing: 19th-Century Discontent

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.jpgDISCONTENT
Light human nature is too lightly tost
And ruffled without cause, complaining on–
Restless with rest, until, being overthrown,
It learneth to lie quiet. Let a frost
Or a small wasp have crept to the inner-most
Of our ripe peach, or let the wilful sun
Shine westward of our window,–straight we run
A furlong’s sigh as if the world were lost.
But what time through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,–we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Ay, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear submissive o’er the stormy main
God’s chartered judgments walk for evermore.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

On first glance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1805-1855) would seem to have lived a life of privilege and fortune, with little room for discontent or unhappiness anywhere. Her family, which resided in the north of England, was extremely wealthy on both sides, the result of both inheritances and ownership of Jamaican sugar plantations. As the oldest of twelve children, she had a very comfortable upbringing, well-educated, and encouraged in her love of poetry-writing by her mother, who kept every one of her daughter’s notebooks, giving us a fascinating glimpse into Elizabeth’s stylistic and philosophical development as she aged.

By her mid-teens though, she’d become an invalid, suffering with disabling headaches and a loss of mobility. Subsequently, she developed chest and lung pain (probably some form of tuberculosis, combined with a neurological disorder causing frequent and temporary paralysis), and she became dependent on laudanum to ease her pain. As with most drug dependencies, a vicious cycle ensued; and the drugs that eased her suffering on the one hand, made her more frail on the other, and as did many people unfortunate enough to be plagued with complaints of the lungs, her family began a search for more agreeable climes. They moved around the country looking for sun and warmth (rather futilely, if one knows anything about British weather). After the drowning death of her brother in a yachting accident in Devon, she and her family moved to Wimpole Street in London, where the almost-bedridden Elizabeth became an advocate for women’s rights and child labor reforms, and found solace in religion, in which she and her family dissented from the established church.

Family fortunes had taken a downturn with the abolition of the slave trade in 1833 and its impact on the Jamaican plantations, so life in Wimpole Street was less luxurious than the family was accustomed to. Elizabeth’s financial contribution (she was now writing full-time) was welcomed, although her stiff-necked father, who never acknowledged that the family had fallen upon penurious times was too stubborn to admit it.

In 1844, publication of her book, Poems, came to the attention of Robert Browning, a poet with an up-again, down-again reputation at the time. (The obscure and complicated Sordello, published in 1840, had almost “dun him in” for good, with Thomas Carlyle famously remarking, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.” And Tennyson consigned it to the ash-heap of poetic history when he said: “There were only two lines in it that I understood, the first and the last, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.’”)

Browning began with a series of letters to Elizabeth, she responded, and the two met in Wimpole Street for the first time in 1845. After that, a courtship began in earnest, carried out secretly, but under the nose of, her father who would strongly have disapproved. In 1846, they married, honeymooned in Paris, and then moved to Italy for Elizabeth’s health. “Papa” disinherited her and made sure she was completely cut off from the rest of her birth family, and that was that.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Robert remained very much in love, and lived happily, touring throughout Italy for nine years, as her health gradually declined and she became morphine-dependent; until, at the age of 55, she died in his arms.

I’d never read the little sonnet at the top of this post, until I ran across it in the course of wracking my brains for something to write about today. It seems to fit the bill, and it matches my mood and my thoughts at the moment. For which of us has never had those moments when a small, unwelcome, wasp comes buzzing into the personal space at the core of our innermost peach, or when the sun is glaring in our eyes, and reflecting/refracting off the windshield, and we can’t see a thing while driving home in the evening? Those moments when a yappy little dog won’t stop nipping at our heels or when the cat has left his hard little plastic toy on the floor right where we get out of bed (a present! how sweet!) and we step on it, in our bare feet, in the middle of the night?

Those moments when we start to hyperventilate and jabber, and fulminate and fume, and “we run/A furlong’s sigh as if the world were lost.”

But it isn’t:

. . . through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,–we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Ay, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear submissive o’er the stormy main
God’s chartered judgments walk for evermore.

Relax. These minor annoyances shall pass. They always do.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Lovely poem. Lovely post. Thanks, @she.

    • #1
    • January 24, 2020, at 6:04 AM PST
    • 1 like
  2. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thanks, Susan. It’s a change from her most quoted (and I’ve always thought rather sappy) “How do I love thee . . .” that’s for sure.

    • #2
    • January 24, 2020, at 6:09 AM PST
    • 1 like
  3. Arahant Member

    Rhyming is not terribly natural to English. It’s part of why the English sonnet was developed. It’s far easier to rhyme seven couplets (most interlaced) than to come up with two good sets of rhymes for four and two more of three. It makes the Petrarchan sonnet much more of a challenge in English. That said, she did it well. The rhymes are not obtrusive.

    • #3
    • January 24, 2020, at 7:33 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. KentForrester Moderator

    She, what is your educational background? I ask because I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone — professor, beast, or beastly student, — who would have chosen such a difficult poem and explained it, along with appropriate bits of the poet’s biography, with such ease and wit. (I’ve included the comma/hyphen combination (, __) in that previous sentence in honor of Mrs. Browning.)

    I bet you used up all of your teachers’ praise and left none for the other students. You were that smart little girl in the first row who caused my eyes to roll so far back into my head that they would stick there for the entire recess that followed the English lesson.

    You’re a wonder.

    • #4
    • January 24, 2020, at 11:59 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  5. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    She, what is your educational background?

    A bit of a mish-mash, @kentforrester. We moved around a lot, my first almost-ten years. So when we were in the UK, for six months, here and there during the school term, I went to what can only be described as a one-room school house, with about fourteen children age five to fourteen, all in the living room of a woman’s enormous house (Mrs. Lowell), sitting at desks and each pursuing a set of lessons for the day. I had my first French lesson when I was about seven. We did music and history, and a pretty full curriculum, but as I said, it was hit-and-miss. It was the easiest way for my parents to get me into an accredited school without having to deal with the board of education, or a bunch of red tape, and I pretty much came and went as convenient.

    When we were in Nigeria, it was also a bit of a muddle. I went to a convent school in Kano, skipped a year altogether when we lived in Mubi (which would have been second-grade, I think)–my mother was supposed to be home-schooling, but she wasn’t interested, went to another “living room” school for a while (Mrs. Newlands, she was lovely), and did third grade at the Kaduna Capital School, after Nigerian independence. It was a government-run school and quite good, and although Northern Nigeria was a predominantly Muslim region, there was no indoctrination or religious curriculum.

    Fourth grade I spent in Boston. We arrived in country three weeks before Kennedy was shot, and I found myself attending Edward Devotion School, his elementary school Alma Mater. It was a fascinating, and very sad introduction to the United States. My fourth grade teacher was a horrible woman. I was elected class secretary, and then I got whooping cough, and was off for a couple of weeks, and she replaced me. It was a miserable year, and I wouldn’t move back to the area for love nor money. Ever.

    Fifth grade, I started in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and then went back to England for a little over two years at a boarding school. That was because Mum and Dad weren’t sure if they were going to stay in the States (depended on if Dad got a tenure track position at the university where he was teaching). But they did, and I came back, and finished Jr. High School and High School in Bethel Park, which was a fine school district at the time.

    University and post graduate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. English Literature. I was, for a time, every Freshman’s worst nightmare of a Composition 101 Teaching Assistant.

    But I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve always thought that the best thing about really good literature is that it’s true. So I try to approach it in that spirit. And I must confess that I only read what I like, and what I think is worth my attention. I recognize others’ mileage may vary, but, for example, Hunter Thompson? Not on your life.

    Thank you for your kind words. I very much appreciate them.

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    I bet you used up all of your teachers’ praise and left none for the other students.

    Well, I married the teacher? Does that count?

    You were that smart little girl in the first row who caused my eyes to roll so far back into my head that they would stick there for the entire recess that followed the English lesson.

    lol. I have a feeling you were much smarter than you let on, perhaps even in the schoolroom.

    You’re a wonder.

    Mr. She and I were certainly a nine-days wonder. The talk of the town, 1977. My God, 43 years ago. I’d come into class in the morning and there would be a little bouquet of nasturtiums on my desk. And a note.

    Still, I survived that scandal, as I’ve survived a few others since.

    Just like EBB’s poem says.

    Thanks again.

    Excelsior!

    • #5
    • January 24, 2020, at 1:13 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  6. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Rhyming is not terribly natural to English. It’s part of why the English sonnet was developed. It’s far easier to rhyme seven couplets (most interlaced) than to come up with two good sets of rhymes for four and two more of three. It makes the Petrarchan sonnet much more of a challenge in English. That said, she did it well. The rhymes are not obtrusive.

    Agree, and what an enlightening comment. Thanks.

    • #6
    • January 24, 2020, at 1:16 PM PST
    • 1 like
  7. KentForrester Moderator

    She, if your educational history were described to a member of the educational establishment, he would undoubtedly say, “Why, that poor student bounced around from school to school, teacher to teacher. There’s no way that kid could get an education. I think you would have proven them wrong. You can’t stop a curious kid from getting an education — if not inside the classroom, then outside.

     

    • #7
    • January 24, 2020, at 3:15 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, if your educational history were described to a member of the educational establishment, he would undoubtedly say, “Why, that poor student bounced around from school to school, teacher to teacher. There’s no way that kid could get an education. I think you would have proven them wrong. You can’t stop a curious kid from getting an education — if not inside the classroom, then outside.

    Completely agree. I think sometimes that the best educations occur outside the classroom.

    • #8
    • January 24, 2020, at 3:32 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    More Richochet eclectic erudition! Plus a great poem.

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2020 Group Writing Theme: Winter of Our Discontent. Thanks to all who chimed in this month; it has been a series of great posts.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #9
    • January 24, 2020, at 5:41 PM PST
    • 1 like