Dr. Jerome Wynter Presents
“The Cosmopolitan EBB”
Date Wednesday, April 13, 2022
by Laura Clarke
We hope that you will be able to join us for Dr. Jerome Wynter’s talk “The Cosmopolitan EBB” on
April 13 at 6:00pm.
About Dr. Wynter:
Bio: Jerome Wynter is working on a book project on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s political poetics, based on his PhD dissertation. Dr Wynter was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Armstrong Browning Library in the summer of 2019. His article on EBB’s early antislavery verse is forthcoming in the Fall 2022 edition of Victorian Poetry. He teaches as an adjunct at Queens College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.
Abstract for Dr. Wynter’s talk:
In 1907, George Bernard Shaw inveighed against the “hypocrites, humbugs, Germans, Jews, Yankees, foreigners, Park Laners” in London, whom he termed as “cosmopolitan riffraff” (sic.). Shaw’s disparagement of people from different parts of the world, and those he deemed objectionable, runs counter to the spirit of cosmopolitanism that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) espoused half a century earlier. In fact, EBB considered herself to be “very cosmopolitan.” That she embraced transnationalism and transatlanticism both in her life and poetic compositions is well documented. This paper argues for seeing EBB’s cosmopolitanism as a metaphor for poetic echoing, as well as the interconnection and magnetization of her political poems about oppression across different situations and circumstances. Hers is a poetic linguistic cosmopolitanism. Speaking of and for the universally underrepresented, the
“socially and politically disadvantaged,” EBB denounced injustice, urged resistance against oppression and advocated for individual as well as national liberty in her poetry. From the historical events in her privately printed book The Battle of Marathon (1820) about Greek Independence to the contemporary political events in the posthumously published poem “Summing Up Italy” (1862), EBB’s idealist view “for the world and humanity” is to end oppression wherever it occurs and realize universal peace and harmony. Ironically, this state of bliss is to be achieved not through “peace diplomacy” or “non-interventionist policies,” as EBB suggests in Casa Guidi Windows (1851), but war and resistance. As this paper demonstrates, EBB’s metaphorical cosmopolitanism embodies her poetry on Greek independence, British and American antislavery and the Italian Risorgimento, all of which are combined into a single discourse of her political canon. To our day, EBB’s body of work continues to echo, enlisting the readers in the process to be cosmopolitan.
With Dr. Wynter’s topic in mind, I have been thinking about the many ways in which Elizabeth and Robert were cosmopolitan. Both poets were cosmopolitan in the sense that they lived abroad and had a wide range of friends, but also in the sense that they an expansive rather than a limited scope. The double significance of this term leads me to think of Robert’s friendship with Joseph Milsand, a French literary critic who wrote an enthusiastic review of Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850). Interestingly, in this review, Milsand uses the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Browning’s view of religion. Comparing Browning with Tennyson, Milsand observes that it is Browning’s poetic gift to see the universal ideas of religion that are embodied in different creeds. Milsand notes that: “If Mr. Browning had finally arrived at this cosmopolitan spiritualism which opens its arms to all possible forms of religion, his travels would be only those of an ordinary mind.” For someone with lower faculties, this recognition, Milsand warns, could become a kind of relativism. Milsand remarks that: “What is difficult
is to be able to distinguish at once the intention and the means, the spirit and the form; it is to be able to love in all religions what they propose, and yet still to prefer one.” In other words, the imagination recognizes the one religion of ideas, but the person of vision must choose for himself the material expression, the creed that best expresses his or her inward perception of truth.
It was this shared cosmopolitan view of religion that led Browning to include Milsand in his long narrative poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country. The plot of this poem is based on a real-life story of the Paris jeweler, Antoine Mellerio, who killed himself in 1870, leaving his property to the Church but stipulating that his mistress, Anna de Beaupré, could remain in their home. In Browning’s poem, Miranda (based on Mellerio), a Catholic, struggles with his love for Clara (based on Anna) because she cannot divorce her husband. Browning’s notion of love and religion entailed the complete freedom of each individual, a view which among other things meant that he did not think of unlawful love, if it was a genuinely spiritual feeling, as blasphemous. Thus, Browning makes it clear that although Miranda’s love for Clara is illicit in terms of Catholic law, it is true in terms of the spirit: “Truth I say, truth I mean: this love was true.” However, without poetic imagination, Miranda relies on the external law dictated by
the Church and renounces his relationship with Clara. This is a crucial turning point for Miranda, and the narrator suggests that he should seek out a guide. Miranda stands at a crossroads: one route leads to the Church while the other leads to Browning’s close friend, Joseph Milsand, a choice that has crucial symbolic ramifications for Miranda.
For Browning, Milsand represents a French-Anglo cosmopolitanism, but, more importantly, he is also cosmopolitan in a spiritual sense because, like Browning, he has the poetic imagination to see how the one universal religion takes different forms of expression. Thus, in a striking metafictional moment in the poem, the narrator of Browning’s poem advises Miranda to confide in Milsand: “So would he soon supply your crippled soul / With crutches from his own intelligence.” Miranda’s crucial mistake is to turn away from Milsand toward the Ravissante, “Mere human law and custom,” the forms that for Browning stymie and imprison the individual perception of religious ideas. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Milsand should refer to the Joseph Milsand Archive at the Armstrong Browning Library, which provides an incredible social record of 19th-century France.
Philip Kelley, who secured the collection for the Armstrong Browning Library, details the highlights of the collection below:
The Joseph Milsand Archive, now owned by the ABL&M, contains over 4,000 autograph letters as well as numerous rare books, pamphlets, journals, photographs, drawings, newspapers, and albums. It includes original manuscripts of nearly all of Milsand’s known writings, together with a large number of annotated proofs and most of his printed works, documenting his career from the age of 20 until his death. Over 62,000 manuscript pages of Milsand’s articles, essays, study notes, and personal journals (mostly handwritten in French) record his thoughts and observations.
We are also excited that April is Poetry Month and time for our annual New York City High School Poetry Competition. We will conclude our season next month by inviting six student winners to read their wining poems and receive their awards.
We look forward to seeing you at our next meeting!
James Browning Kepple, President
Robert Kramer, Vice President
Laura Clarke, Corresponding Secretary
Nancy McGraw, Recording Secretary
Gene Bierhorst, Director-at-Large
KT Sullivan, Director-at-Large
Tom D’Egidio, Director-at-Large