The Browning Montale Transference – Tom D’Egidio
Date Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Place Westbeth Community Room
155 Bank St. NYC
The NY Browning Society will begin its 116th season with a live illustrated lecture on the relationship of Eugenio Montale to Robert Browning, to take place on Montale’s birthday, October 12th, 2022.
The lecture, titled “The Browning/Montale Transference”, will be given by poet and translator Tom d’Egidio in the Westbeth Community Room, 155 Bank St., between West St. & Washington St., in Manhattan, at 6:00pm.
The lecture will be free and open to the public.
Light refreshments will be served.
Italian poet Eugenio Montale was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature of 1975.
Despite the best efforts of his translators, including Robert Lowell, who called him
“one of the best poets alive”, he was largely unknown in the English-speaking world
at the time of that great honor.
His fellow Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky said of his “Piccolo Testamento”
that it “easily matches Yeat’s “Second Coming “; and the power of his poetry has
been compared with that of the Eliot of “The Four Quartets”, the Valery of “Cemetery
By The Sea”, and the Rilke of “The Duino Elegies”.
A poet difficult even for his fellow Italians, who may well keep a dictionary handy
while wrestling with his tricky syntax, Montale from the start did not seem to come
out of any Italian poetic tradition.
And yet, difficult and serious as Montale is, Martin Seymour-Smith singled out his
“Dora Markus” as “one of the most beautiful love poems of all time”.
Unusual for an Italian poet of his generation, Montale was an Anglophile who
read poetry in English and translated Eliot into Italian. As a young man in the
1920s, he also made visits to Ezra Pound, then living on the Italian Riviera, in order
to get Pound’s views on Browning, the views of a poet who called Browning his
“father”. It was during the period of these visits to Pound that Montale began writing
poems in the form of dramatic portraits. And it is also when Montale, a native of
Genoa, moved to Florence, declaring his intention to live there “with the detachment
of a foreigner, of a Robert Browning”.
The youthful Montale’s poetry and the poet himself struck fellow Italians as alien.
It’s easy to imagine him as the “falso inglese” he describes in a short story. Early on
Montale had discovered a way to double himself, a process that many poets have
“The Browning/Montale Transference” will examine some of Montale’s most
important poems, and attempt to trace the influence of Browning in them, while
illuminating aspects of both these poets who are notable for their fascinating
difficulty and amazing beauty.
Tom d’Egidio, poet & translator, is Director-At-Large of the NY Browning Society.
His talk on contemporary Roman poet Valerio Magrelli (described by Magrelli
himself as “bella, attenta, vivace e pepata” (“beautiful, attentive, lively & peppery”),
given in conjunction with National Translation Month on September 29, 2021, is
viewable on YouTube as part of “Four Poets And Their Translations”.
He is at work on a novel set in the downtown Manhattan bohemian scene (Jean-
Michel Basquiat et al.) of circa 1980. His chapbook “The Enigma of Arrival” is
available from UNDERGROUND BOOKS.ORG
This event is in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, we hope you will join us for this presentation to open our 116th Season.
New York City High School Poetry Winners
Date Wednesday, May 11, 2022
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.
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
Date Wednesday, March 9, 2022
Dr. Dino Franco Felluga Presents
“Browning and the Virtuous Act”
Join on ZOOM
by Laura Clarke
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 )
Bob McNeil Presents “Verses versus Injustice: Words of Protest from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Other Democracy Seekers”
Date Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Join us on Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88662739677
by Laura Clarke
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.”
Fiona Sampson Presents
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Self-Invented Poet”
January 12, 2022 -6PM-
VIA ZOOM: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81333221955
by Laura Clarke
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.
Annual Holiday Poetry Reading
A Tribute to Stephen Downey
Date Wednesday, December 8, 2021
JOIN US AND READ POETY VIA ZOOM!
by Laura Clarke
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.