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.”