We close out our 2022 season by celebrating our annual New York City
High School Poetry Competition. Our President, James Kepple, will give
a brief talk before inviting six student winners to read their wining
poems and receive their awards.
Please note that this meeting will be held at 1:00 pm.
A note from James Kepple:
In the final presentation of the season, I turn to Virginia Woolf’s novel Flush to look at the lives of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of the most famous dog of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth’s beloved Flush. Woolf’s novel recounts the lively adventures of Flush—his shocking kidnap, his resistance to Elizabeth’s budding romance, and the new life of liberation he found in Italy after the Brownings eloped. I will then introduce the winners of our annual High School Poetry Competition who will present their award-winning poems! Come join us for Robert Browning’s 220th birthday to see for yourselves the future world where we are still talking about the bard and discussing how his work is influencing further generations and beyond!
We want to especially thank all of our amazing speakers this season. We look forward to reading more of Dr. Dino Franco Felluga’s work on Robert Browning in his forthcoming book on the nineteenth-century verse novel, as well as Dr. Jerome Wynter’s article on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s abolitionist poetics, which will be published in the journal Victorian Poetry. Next season, we are looking forward to hearing more presentations from a range of impressive scholars and writers who are working on the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
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
We are excited that Dr. Dino Franco Felluga will be presenting his recent work on Robert Browning at our March meeting, which will be held on March 9th at our new time of 6:00 pm.
About Dr. Felluga: Dino Franco Felluga is Professor of English and Director of Literature, Theory, and Cultural Studies at Purdue University. His articles have appeared in SEL: Studies in English Literature, Victorian Studies, Criticism, Victorian Poetry, European Romantic Review, Critical Quarterly, 19, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and the Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry. His first book, The Perversity of Poetry: Romantic Ideology and the Popular Male Poet of Genius was published by SUNY Press in 2005. It was followed by the 4-volume, million-word Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature and Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. He is also the general editor of BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History and COVE: Collaborative Organization for Virtual Education. His current book project, Novel-Poetry, co-written with Emily Allen, explores the cross-influence of poetry and the novel in the nineteenth
century. Prof. Felluga also created the North American Victorian Studies Association and served as NAVSA’s president for the first 11 years of the organization.
Abstract for Dr. Felluga’s talk:
As its very title suggests, Robert Browning’s Ring and the Book is about both things and forms, but what is so remarkable about the poem is the extent to which Browning troubles the easy relationship between the two. Engaging the Victorian novel’s own fascination with realistically rendered things and referents, Browning’s verse-novel asks us to interrogate the novel’s claim to present us with a window onto the world of things. Poetry by its very nature could be said to work in opposition to the pure crude facts of realism precisely because it continually asks us not only to see the things described but also to recognize the metaphoric equivalences that take us away from temporal contiguity. The verse-novels of the 1850s and 60s that experimented with the temporal and spatial expansiveness of the novel ask us to see a depicted world, thus engaging in the fictional strategy of realism, yet, engaging as they do with the generic parameters of the lyric as it was theorized in the nineteenth century, they also ask us to “see” thither where eyes “cannot reach yet yearn,” as R. Browning puts it in this poem.
Verse-novels subscribe to the formal nature of poetry, making opaque the very page that might tease us with transport to the diegetic world of things signified. The very line breaks matter, for example, as much as any matter referenced—form thus trumping any “ring-thing,” as that very phrase suggests, alluding as it does to the formal structure of rhyme (ring/thing) in the midst of Browning’s blank verse poem. R. Browning’s point, however, is that art alone can save us from mere credulity, regardless of whether we are talking here about religion, ideology, or representation. It does so by teaching one ultimate lesson and that is “This lesson, that our human speech is naught,/ Our human testimony false, our fame/ And human estimation words and wind” (12.834-36). R. Browning thus questions both sides of the equation, both narrative realism and poetic lyricism.
Like the verse-novels that preceded Browning’s poem, The Ring and the Book does not stop at mere skepticism, however, but opens up for us a mechanism for radical critique in the present. What interests us specifically are the ways that Browning’s own verse-novel interrogates the nature of evil, a concern that Browning addressed throughout his career and the dark obverse of the search for infinite truths. We thus illustrate how Browning’s understanding of truth differs structurally from the way it is addressed in the novel—and in novel criticism of the last fifty years.
I am particularly looking forward to Dr. Felluga’s talk, as I am a keen reader of nineteenth-century verse novels and have just finished reading Owen Meredith’s Lucile. Meredith, the pen name of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, was a good friend of the Brownings and was clearly influenced by their poetry; thus, in this month’s newsletter I will talk briefly about Meredith’s verse novel and the Brownings’ response to it. It is important to note that Meredith spent time with the Brownings during the period that Robert was completing Men and Women and Elizabeth was working on Aurora Leigh. He wrote to his father about their powerful influence on him: “It is something — the contact with superior minds — which both of them are. Sometimes a word from a person of genius is an open sesame to one’s own hidden life. It is true that ‘great men make the earth wholesome.’
“In a letter to Elizabeth about spiritualism, Meredith says something that can help us to understand his philosophical purpose in Lucile. He writes, “Matter must be brought up to the level of spirit, as the body is to rise with the soul. Form has never been strong enough yet to contain and fit idea; the wine has burst the bottles.” The notion that form cannot perfectly fit the idea, which Meredith understands in Plato’s sense as universal ideas, is reminiscent of romantic irony, the eternal tension between the ideal and the real. This tension for the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel results in “transcendental buffoonery,” the plight of the poet of imagination who cannot fully embody his transcendent visions in a work of art and thus only expresses himself through wit. Meredith conveys this irony in his verse novel through the humorous self-consciousness of the narrator who reveals the tension between the ideal and the real in the process of shaping his poem. There are juxtapositions of long philosophic flights with the prosaic facts of the real as well as many instances in which the poet-narrator cannot embody his inner sense of infinity in the world he is seeking to create. A particularly funny example of the poet’s plight can be seen when he invokes his muse, only to find that there can be no epic in the modern world; thus, he hails the modern muse, the publishers Murray and Son.
It is interesting that it is precisely this sense of irony—the humorous deflation of the ideal and the poetic raising of the real—that divides Robert and Elizabeth on the poem. It is not surprising that Browning, whose poetry often explores the ironic space between the ideal and the real, appreciated the combination of philosophy and wit. He wrote to Meredith to praise his achievement: “I think your general power is increased and brought into new channels; there is wit, use of the world; wisdom too, and the old music and pathos…There are backgrounds of scenery of great beauty and finish.” Elizabeth, however, was unsettled by the irony in Lucile. She commends the “descriptive part” of the verse novel which she finds “exquisite,” and she notes that Meredith can be “very witty, very tender, very pathetic.” However, she remarks that “readers like myself miss, through all the good and true thoughts scattered up and down, the sight of an earnest intention.” What Elizabeth is most critical of is “feeling a doubt whether the poet’s levity or his gravity be the more genuine. The colour of his convictions is doubtful, which, let us all be sure, is a weakness in a work of art, just as it is an infirmity in a man.” She writes: “Here, I do not see where the writer’s convictions are. He means well somehow; but what is the well he means?”
If you have not already, I encourage you to read Lucile to see whether you agree with Robert or Elizabeth’s perspective on Meredith’s experimental novel-in-verse.
I would like to close this month’s newsletter by offering my condolences to our President James Kepple, who sadly lost his mother last month. I would also like to extend my condolences to the family of Stephen Downey, our former President, who passed peacefully in his sleep on December 7th in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you would like to donate to the Society in remembrance of him you can go to https://nybrowning.org/contact/ and find out more information. You can also fill out your members’ dues for this season on that page as well.
Stephen Miner Downey
1937 – DECEMBER 7, 2021(AGE
Gay Muret (Browning) Kepple
1954 – JANUARY 17,
202 2 (AGE 67 )
We hope that you will be able to join us for Bob McNeil’s Zoom presentation, “Verses versus Injustice: Words of Protest from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Other Democracy Seekers,” which will be held on February 9th at our new time of 6:00 pm.
About Bob McNeil:
Bob McNeil, writer, editor, cartoonist, and spoken word artist, is the author of Verses of
Realness (https://tinylink.net/muF6C). Hal Sirowitz, a former Queens Poet Laureate, called the book “a fantastic trip through the mind of a poet who doesn’t flinch at the truth.” Among Bob’s recent accomplishments, he found working on Lyrics of Mature Hearts to be a humbling experience because of the anthology’s talented contributors. Copies of that collection are available here: Lyrics of Mature Hearts: A Poetry Anthology.
Below is an abstract for McNeil’s talk:
Dating back to an immemorial era, brave poets challenged the immoral policies of societies. Even the Bible has verses that express sedition against tyranny. Aware of creative writing’s power to change minds and hearts, Elizabeth Barrett Browning used her literary gifts for just causes such as abolitionism, the abuse of children, and feminism. Bob McNeil, always an ardent admirer of artists fighting for righteousness, will share Elizabeth’s politically enlightened work in his lecture titled Verses versus Injustice. This program will also delve into the compositions by other writers and revolutionaries in the struggle for freedom.
In anticipation of McNeil’s talk on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other writers and revolutionaries who have fought for justice, I want to take a moment in this month’s newsletter to discuss Elizabeth’s concept of freedom, especially as it is voiced in her verse novel Aurora Leigh. Elizabeth’s idea of freedom is often expressed in terms that are derived from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which he states: “And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
In On Heroes, Thomas Carlyle, whom the Brownings greatly admired, has in mind the Biblical distinction between the letter that kills and the spirit that gives life when he remarks that “All substances clothe themselves in forms.” For Carlyle, there are “forms which grow round a substance” and “correspond to the real nature and purport of it,” which are “true, good.” But there are also “forms which are conspicuously put round a substance.” These forms are false: they are the letter and not the spirit because they have not been evolved from the spirit within.
Elizabeth, who shared Carlyle’s transcendentalist philosophy, also believed that: “the practical and real (so called) is but the external evolution of the ideal & spiritual—that is from inner to outer.” Thus, it was her conviction that imposing forms from without rather than deriving them from the spirit within is tantamount to tyranny, whether in the realm of politics, religion, or art.
Elizabeth explores this idea of freedom and the difference between false and organic forms in her verse novel Aurora Leigh. First, we see that Aurora must throw off the tyranny of religious forms. Living with her aunt, who is certain that “Christian doctrine was enforced at church,” Aurora “learnt the collects and the catechism, / The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice, / The Articles…the Tracts against the times.” Aurora knows, however, that she has “relations to the Unseen,” and thus “kept the life thrust on me, on the outside / Of the inner life with all its ample room / For heart and lungs, for will and intellect, / Inviolable by conventions.”
When Aurora discovers her poetic voice, her heart and soul finally “clears…to elemental freedom” and “At poetry’s divine first finger-touch, / Let go conventions and sprang up surprised, / Convicted of the great eternities / Before two worlds.” Aurora has the revelation that true religion is not a litany of external rules and rituals but her own inward connection to the infinite. Aurora must also throw off the tyranny of poetic forms. After asking: “What form is best for poems?” she tells herself, “Let me think / Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit, / As Sovran nature does, to make the form.” She then makes a connection between false forms and tyranny: “For otherwise we only imprison spirit /And not embody. Inward evermore / To outward, – so in life, and so in art / Which still is life.” Aurora, like Elizabeth herself, finds that writing a verse novel—in which the power of poetry reveals the spiritual essence of the prosaic and the real—is the form that most organically expresses her poetic vision. Aurora convinces Romney that even political and economic theories cannot be imposed from without; they must evolve from the inner spirit of individuals that make up a people and a nation. Through their respective poetical and political work, Aurora and Romney will strive to embody the spiritual in the real, the internal in the external. Only then “In new dynasties of the race of men; Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously / New churches, new economies, new laws / Admitting freedom, new societies / Excluding falsehood: HE shall make all new.”
We are excited that Fiona Sampson will be presenting a talk on Elizabeth Barrett Browning at this month’s Browning Society meeting. For my newsletter today, I want to talk about my experience of reading Sampson’s biography of Elizabeth, the first new biography to have been written in over thirty years. I have a tendency to start biographies and not finish them, but Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a page-turner. In one of the many philosophical ruminations in the book, Sampson contemplates the constructed nature of identity and laments how the fictionalized character of ‘Elizabeth’ that has replaced her in the popular imagination is “someone passive and poorly, bullied and rescued, barely even a poet,” someone who “is almost entirely bodily, scarcely a mind at all.” What is most interesting for me is that while Sampson certainly challenges the bodily narrative of Elizabeth’s legacy and explores her intellectual development, her biography is itself intensely embodied, and what I mean by that is I was left with an intense perception of Elizabeth as a living, breathing, real-life person, something that I have not felt from reading a biography before.
Sampson challenges the myth of Elizabeth as a weak invalid, but she also does not linger on the ideal of the Victorian poetess. Elizabeth can be exuberant, contradictory, dark, emotional, obsessive, and brilliant. For instance, Sampson introduces us to the intense literary friendships that Elizabeth had with men, such as with Hugh Stuart Boyd, which were so important to her intellectual development, but she also shows us how these relationships were often manipulative, abusive, or psychologically unhealthy. She also shows us that Elizabeth’s privileged position makes her complicit in colonialism, despite her political and ethical beliefs. Although we know Elizabeth and Robert were abolitionists, Sampson does not shy away from revealing the extent to which Elizabeth’s idyllic childhood at Hope End and even her elopement to Italy was funded by “blood money.” Indeed, even though the Barretts were politically progressive Whigs, their family wealth, Sampson emphasizes, came largely from sugar plantations. She reminds us of the fact that “[in] 1810, more than 10 per cent of wealthy Britons are profiting from slavery; money that will never return to the enslaved people who created it, but remains in the British economy into the twenty-first century.”
Sampson’s biography continually complicates the images we have received of both Elizabeth and Robert by asking thought-provoking questions that push us to deconstruct neat definitions and narratives. For instance, she highlights letters that reveal the strength of feelings Robert had for Alfred Domett and asks, “might Robert the femmelette [as Mary Mitford called him] ever have experimented with bisexuality, or attracted crushes.” I had always imagined the Brownings’ life in Italy as a time of stability, happily settled at Casa Guidi, but Sampson documents the financial and health concerns that led Elizabeth and Robert to move from place to place a dizzying number of times. Materiality is emphasized again as Sampson details Elizabeth’s dependency on morphine and her multiple miscarriages. Even the ideal of Elizabeth’s death, one perpetuated by Robert, is questioned. Sampson observes that Elizabeth’s death “resembles a breath-shallowing, heart-stopping morphine overdose,” and points out that Robert administered morphine to Elizabeth on the night of her death. She remarks “combine the high dependency on the drug and the panicky human desire to relieve suffering and this is not inconceivable.” Focusing her attention on Robert, Sampson remarks, “And who’s to say that it would not even be a kind of pragmatic, if unconscious compassion?”
While Sampson’s biography often left me feeling unsettled, this is because it was if she was resuscitating Elizabeth, bringing her back to life. Sampson, however, closes her biography by noting that this reinterpretation is colored by her own subjectivity. She asks, “how else can we encounter our biographical subject, except by coming to meet her? Writing can never be wholly innocent of the writing self, and slowly I’m coming to accept that a biographer’s own self always frames her subject.” In this, Sampson’s biography is an intensely modern work of art.
Fiona Sampson is the author of twenty-eight books of poetry and nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley. Published in thirty-seven languages. She’s the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including an MBE for services to literature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Wordsworth Trust, and English Association, she is the professor emerita of the University of Roehampton and lives on the Welsh border.
We hope that you will be able to join us for our annual holiday poetry reading, a time when we get together to share excerpts of our favorite poetry by the Brownings.
Many of the traditional elements of Christmas that are still popular today began in the Victorian period: decorating Christmas trees, sending Christmas cards, singing carols, pulling Christmas crackers, and enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner with family. And of course, it was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that solidified the many Christmas traditions we still enjoy today. For this holiday newsletter, then, I want to point out two opportunities in New York City this month for experiencing Dickens’ classic Christmas novel.
Every December, The Morgan Library displays the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol, which was purchased by Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. Every year, the Morgan turns one page of the manuscript, and this year the manuscript is open at the point in the novel in which Scrooge quarrels with his nephew over the value of Christmas. The page concludes with Scrooge’s first mention of Jacob Marley who “died seven years, this very night,” which is a reference that hints at Scrooge’s adventures to come and the lessons he will learn.
For more information on this exhibition, visit https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/charles-dickens-a-christmascarol.
If you’re in the mood for more Christmas fun with Dickens, consider attending a 1-hour reading of A Christmas Carol at the Merchant House Museum. In December 1867, Dickens held sold-out readings of A Christmas Carol in New York City, and to commemorate these popular events, the Merchant House Museum stages readings by Kevin Jones in its elegant double parlor, which is ornamented with traditional nineteenth-century Christmas decorations. Select performances are followed by a reception with Dickens and mulled wine. For more information about this event and ticket prices, visit https://merchantshouse.org/christmascarol/.
In the spirit of giving that is so important to Dickens’ famous novel, we hope that you will consider making a donation to the New York Browning Society. Please find attached a dues donation form for 2021. Your membership will help us to keep our historic society alive; we are very proud to be the longest running Browning Society in America.
SLAVERY, SOCIAL JUSTICE & THE BROWNINGS
The Date: Wednesday November 10th 2021
The Time: 1:00 PM
The Place: The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York, New York 1003
Admission: Free & Open To The Public
It is perhaps now a mystery just why the phenomenon of “Browning Fever” once swept this country, inspiring the founding of hundreds of Browning Societies, many of them by
women, across America between the 1870s and the 1920s.
The answer lies in the title of poet Tom d’Egidio’s talk, “SLAVERY, SOCIAL JUSTICE & THE BROWNINGS “, in which he explains the Abolitionist, Feminist, Revolutionary & Radical
lives and writings of the Brownings that so captured the American imagination.
The Brownings are the superstar couple among poets, their courtship portrayed many times in novels, plays, musicals, TV dramas and Hollywood movies. Virginia Woolf even wrote a novel from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush.
And now Game Of Thrones star Emilia Clarke is to play Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a new movie called “Let Me Count The Ways”.
The NY Browning Society, New York City’s oldest continuously active literary society, founded 1907, is revisiting its original radical roots as an organization dedicated to ideals of social justice and reform as represented by the writings and life examples of Robert (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).
The many hundreds of Browning Societies, many established by and for women while Robert was still alive, represent a unique phenomenon among literary societies, with hundreds founded in the United States alone, and a few still ongoing to this day.
One of the purposes of the Browning Societies was to provide an educational outlet for women who were still prohibited from attending universities. Even with the doors of higher education now long open to women, the powerful poems and the inspiring lives of the Brownings continue to fuel interest in and attract members to the Browning Societies today.
The Brownings lived through turbulent times featuring great 19th century reform movements fighting against slavery and in favor of liberal democracy, and were themselves at the heart of those movements. Elizabeth documented the huge uprising in Florence against the Grand
Duke of Tuscany in her major poem “Casa Guidi Windows”. Her novel in verse, “Aurora Lee”, is a foundational document of the Feminist Movement. Robert helped revive interest in the post-feudal spirit of the Renaissance, invoking its celebration of individual freedom and creativity in “Fra Lippo Lippi”, “Andrea del Sarto”, and other major poems. Elizabeth’s 253-line poem “The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point” was explicitly written by her for sale in the U.S. in order to raise money for the Abolitionist cause, in the ‘Revolutionary Year’ of 1848 when armed revolts
against despotic monarchs were taking place all over Europe, led by firebrands such as their personal friend Mazzini who is portrayed in Robert’s “The Italian in England”.
British slavery had already been ended by then, but both Brownings had personal reasons for their ongoing concern. Robert’s father had been an overseer of slaves on his family’s plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. But that was nothing compared to the great wealth that the Barretts had derived through the exploitation of thousands of their slaves on Jamaica,
prompting Elizabeth’s father to regard Robert as a fortune hunter. The blanket opposition of Elizabeth’s father to marriage for any of his children made elopement by the Brownings necessary, and cut Elizabeth off from huge wealth. Yet two inheritances from other slave-holding relatives financed a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle, complete with Elizabeth’s personal
maid from London, for the Brownings in Florence.
In Tom d’Egidio’s talk, the lives and works of the Brownings are discussed against the sweeping panorama of a 19th century in which serfs and slaves were finally liberated, in which democracy became the dominant political ideal, in which poets such as Percy Shelley, Ugo Foscolo, Victor Hugo, and the Brownings preferred exile over oppression, in which poets carried the banner of political and social reform. There are however, many motivations that can only be clarified in retrospect; much that was poorly understood or simply not publicly expressed. Certainly the shared Barrett and Browning family background of Slavery importantly linked the Brownings in their mutual rebellion against prevailing assumptions of relative racial superiority.
But could it be true as well, that the Brownings had not just figurative but literal skin in the game: That one or both of them had Black African ancestry in an era when that was not at all rare among slave owning families? What exactly did Elizabeth mean when she wrote the following to suitor Robert on December 20th, 1845: “I would give ten towns in Norfolk to own
some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave”? Is this letter the clue to Elizabeth’s father’s strange attempt to bring the family line to an end? Or is the biggest clue hiding in plain sight, stated in numerous poems by Robert Browning, over and over again, throughout his writing life? Making use of established historical fact, family legend, and literary analysis, Tom d’Egidio will explore this issue of genetics, and all other sources of the commitment of both Brownings to social justice that so inspired many more individuals than any other 19th century poets.
Come be part of the fascinating conversation. Come be part of the NYBrowning Society: nybrowning.org
Tom d’Egidio is a member of the Suppose An Eyes poetry group at the
University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, and serves on the Board of
the NY Browning Society as a Director-At-Large. His poetry chapbook The
Enigma Of Arrival is available through UNDERGROUNDBOOKS.ORG
Friends and Members of the New York Browning Society,
Welcome to our 115th Season! We have made it together all these
years! The start of this year began with our participation in
National Translation Month two weeks ago at a new venue
for the society, The Westbeth Community Room at 155 Bank
Street in Manhattan. We also met under the auspice of a new time
at 6:00 Pm in the evening. It was a great pleasure to have read
from Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night” to highlight this
new era of the Browning Society. The event was a success,
typically identified by wine, cheese and crackers, in my opinion
a slight upgrade to the cookies and coffee of the past.
We are inviting you out next week October 20th via ZOOM
for all of our members to discuss our thoughts on the new venue
and time, and to discuss many elements of the currently changing
dynamic between our Society and Society at large. I feel as though
Zoom will be a great opportunity to hear from the voices of those
that could not attend, and those that did, to discuss our feelings
on this venue and the new time going forward. I would like for us to
explore all of the options we have available.
We have also updated our website with a complete archive of all
of our Award Winning Poets since 2012. Take a look at all of the amazing
talent this city has procured over the last 10 years.
I am inviting all of us out to this special meeting to serve as a sounding
board, an informal Browning Society board meeting, and a way to fellowship
with all of our members who were unavailable to make the first meeting
this year. I would love to discuss how everyone is doing, and their thoughts
going forward with this new season.
On the evening of Wednesday, September 29th, 2021, at 6pm, the NY Browning Society will
participate in National Translation Month in its first event of the 2021-2022 season.
“Four Poets And Their Translations” will take place in the Westbeth Community Room, located at 155 Bank Street. Admission is free. The event will be moderated by noted actor and long-time Browning Society member Tandy Cronyn, star of stage and screen. This program takes its inspiration from the Brownings, Elizabeth and Robert, both able linguists who practiced the art of translation. “Four Poets And Their Translations” will feature translations of poems from French, German, and Italian into English, as well as from English into Spanish.
Poet Annabel Lee publishes poets through her Vehicle Editions press. She serves on the Board of The Poetry Project at St. Marks. The latest collection of her poems is Minnesota Drift (Accent Books of Chester, Vermont). She will present her translations from the French of 20th century poet Louise de Vilmorin.
Poet Roberto Mendoza Ayala publishes Mexican and U.S. poets in bilingual editions with his Darklight publishing company. His own latest collection is Palabras Desconocidas/Unknown Words (Darklight: Mexico City & NYC). He will read five Mexican contemporary poets whose work he has translated into English with the help of Arthur Gatti: Baudelio Camarillo, Héctor Carreto, María Ángeles Juárez Téllez, Iliana Rodríguez Zuleta and Carlos Santibáñez Andonegui.
Poet Tom d’Egidio is part of the Suppose An Eyes poetry group at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, and Director-At-Large of the NY Browning Society. Harlem’s http://undergroundbooks.org/ publishes his chapbook The Enigma Of Arrival. He will present his translations of contemporary Roman poet Valerio Magrelli.
Poet Robert Kramer is Emeritus Director of International Studies at Manhattan College, and current Vice-President of the NY Browning Society. His latest collection is At The Margins/Al Margen (Darklight: Mexico City & NYC). His presentation will reflect the extensive translations he has made from every period of German poetry.
-As we kick off the 115th Season of the New York Browning Society we hope to invite you out to a new venue and time for this event! As the world continues to change in so many ways, we look forward to keep you updated to all the exciting new ways we will adapt for this season with a mixture of venues, times, & speakers, online and off! We invite you to join the New York Browning Society in this upcoming season! We would love to earn your membership and
patronage for the years to come!
James Browning Kepple – President
6 PM Sept 29th 2021 155 BANK ST – Closest Subway ACD L at 14th, and 1,2,3 at 14th St!
For our final meeting of the year, we welcome members and guests to join us for a round table discussion on the legacy of the Brownings and the future of Browning studies. Participants are encouraged to lead a short discussion on any aspect of our theme or to select a short reading to discuss.
Since we will be reflecting on the lives and works of the Brownings and considering their relevance in the present day, I want to focus in this newsletter on the
way that Dr. Joshua King, who holds the post of Browning Chair at the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, is getting students involved in research on the Brownings. This is a goal close to our heart at the Browning Society of New York which, thanks to the work of our President James Kepple, holds an annual Browning poetry competition in New York City that now includes over 200 schools.
Students in Dr. King’s Senior Research Seminar atBaylor University created an exhibition called The Brownings in Our World, which explores the lives and works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert
Browning through three central themes: injustice, nature, and faith. Students explored the vast archives at the Library and selected documents that contextualize these themes. In the first section of the exhibition, students noted that despite the fact Robert and Elizabeth supported the abolition of slavery, they were also complicit in the slave trade since Elizabeth’s money was derived from her family’s plantation in Jamaica. It was this money,
they point out, that allowed Elizabeth to flee England with Browning and move to Italy. To illustrate this conflict, the exhibition displays a first edition copy of Elizabeth’s poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” along with a picture of a golden pen that was gifted to Elizabeth by her father. The poem reveals Elizabeth’s sympathy with slaves, but the pen signifies the wealth that her family accumulated through the slave trade and that allowed her to write.
The second section of the exhibition focuses on nature in the works and lives of both poets. Photographs of Italy and the gardens of Elizabeth’s childhood home are partnered with poems that use images of flowers to discuss love, and we are told that the Brownings regularly included flowers in their courtship correspondence.
The final part of the exhibition looks at the role of religion in the lives of the Brownings, especially the importance of spiritualism for Elizabeth. One particularly interesting part of the culminating section – because it tells us something about the beginnings of our own society—is dedicated to the cult of Robert Browning that developed in the 1880s. Devoted fans of Browning organized hundreds of Societies throughout North America and Britain, which took on a religious atmosphere. For example, the article shows pictures of “The Ten Commandments for Literary Studies” published by The Chicago Browning Society and an original book of inscriptions gifted to Browning from his many fans on his seventieth birthday.