Tag Archives: Xavier High School

Xavier High School and Clinton High School Poetry Reading – Wednesday, February 12, 2020

PDF: Browning Society Feb Newsletter 2020

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907
The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York NY 10003

Date Wednesday, February 12, 2020.
Time 1:00– 2:00PM
Xavier High School and Clinton High
School Poetry Reading

by Laura Clarke


We hope that you will be able to join us in February for a poetry reading with Xavier and Clinton High Schools as they continue the poetic legacy of the Brownings. Not only does the poetry of the Brownings continue to influence later generations but their relationship continues to have a
pervasive hold on the literary imagination. Every Christmas I spend the holidays in England with my family in East Sussex, and this year I had the opportunity to visit Virginia Woolf’s summer retreat, Monks House. When I was perusing the gift shop, I happened upon her novel, Flush, an
experimental biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved cocker spaniel. This extremely funny and charming biography charts Flush’s early life with Mrs. Mitford: how he sacrifices the joys of nature to become Elizabeth’s companion, his jealousy over Elizabeth’s burgeoning romance with Robert Browning, his horrific kidnap and daring rescue, and the excitement and fear of leaving Wimpole Street for Italy where he finally finds love, freedom, and happiness.  Although Woolf’s novel is ostensibly about Elizabeth’s dog, through the vivid immediacy of Flush’s senses—his tastes, smells, and perceptions—Woolf beautifully evokes the intense emotion and drama of the Brownings’ love story.

Through Flush’s impressions of the external world, Woolf paints a picture of the complete
transformation that takes place in Elizabeth after meeting Browning. Before Browning’s
first visit, Flush and Elizabeth live a life of seclusion in a room with dark, heavy drapes and furniture. Elizabeth rarely eats; she is weak and apathetic: “Flush felt that he and Miss Barrett lived alone together in a cushioned and fire-lit cave.” But after receiving mysterious letters, Flush perceives Elizabeth’s agitation and notices her increasing appetite. Flush’s world is turned
upside down once Browning enters their insulated sphere: “that dark, taut, abrupt, vigorous man, with his black hair, his red cheeks and his yellow gloves, was everywhere.” Through Flush, we are able to viscerally experience Elizabeth’s new vitality: “Flush had never heard that sound in Miss Barrett’s voice before—that vigour, that excitement. Her cheeks were bright as he had never seen them bright; her great eyes blazed as he had never seen him blaze.”

At first, Flush resents Browning’s intrusion into their isolated and withdrawn lives, but escaping to Italy saves them both from their listless existence. Flush and Elizabeth leave behind the dark, heavy, and oppressive Victorian bedroom at Wimpole Street for the spacious and airy rooms of Casa Guidi, graciously bathed in light. Flush’s freedom is mirrored in the joy of Elizabeth’s new life with Robert. Together they explore lakes and mountains, delight in both the sun and the cold, and Flush roams the countryside, fulfilling his natural urges, and reveling in the sensory landscape of Italy. Flush’s physical pleasure clearly reflects Elizabeth’s serenity and self-actualization.

The Brownings’ love story deeply affected Woolf. She wrote in her essay on Aurora Leigh that “nobody can deny the power of the Brownings to excite our sympathy and rouse our interest.” When I read Woolf’s description of Casa Guidi and her depiction of Flush’s exhilaration in Italy, I could not help but think that Woolf must have felt the same sense of liberation when she rejected the shackles of the previous Victorian generation. Woolf enjoyed spending time at
Charleston House, the summer home of her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell who, along
with the painter Duncan Grant, painted directly onto the walls and furniture of the
house in a bright vivacious colors and experimented with new post-impressionistic
styles. Vanessa Bell’s simple and beautiful sketch of Elizabeth at Casa Guidi depicts
her sitting in front of large open windows, looking out at the city of Florence. Woolf’s
novel Flush and Bell’s illustration reveal the sympathy the sisters felt with Elizabeth and
how her story enriched their imaginations, especially the communion they felt having
made a daring escape from the oppressive Victorian world.

Our Student Readers


Xavier High School and Gramercy Arts High School Poetry Reading – Wednesday, February 13, 2019

PDF: Browning Society February Newsletter 2019

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907
The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York NY 10003

Monthly Meeting 1:00– 2:00PM
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Xavier High School and Gramercy
Arts High School Poetry Reading

by Laura Clarke

This month the Browning Society of New York is pleased to present the original poetry of students from Xavier High School and Gramercy Arts High School inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is always a pleasure to see a new generation engaging with the Brownings’ ideas and bringing their insights into our own day. This leads me in this
month’s newsletter to think about Browning as a young man and how he interacted with his own literary idols. As we know, the poet that sparked the young Browning’s poetic ambition was the radical Romantic poet Percy Shelley, whose poems he had happened upon one day when perusing a box of second-hand books. Browning was entirely enthralled by Shelley, and for some time, to his mother’s despair, he followed Shelley by renouncing Christianity and
becoming a vegan. Browning would regain his faith in God (and his enjoyment of meat), but the fact that he kept a flower from Shelley’s grave his whole life tells us much about his continued devotion to Shelley.

Even though Browning escaped from under Shelley’s spell, he continued to define himself in relation to his former idol’s poetry. In his 1851 “Essay on Shelley” Browning famously characterized Shelley as the archetypal subjective poet who seeks to embody what he perceives, not in relation to broader humanity but rather in relation to “the supreme Intelligence which apprehends all things in their absolute truth.” He aspires therefore to express “not what man sees, but what God sees—the Ideas of Plato, seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand.” In contrast, the objective poet, who shares the same heightened vision of the subjective poet, seeks “to reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the human heart and brain) with an immediate reference, in every case, to the common eye
and apprehension of his fellow me, assumed capable of receiving of profiting by this reproduction.” In appealing to “the aggregate human mind” rather than expressing the depths of the individual soul, the objective poet “chooses to deal with the doings of men.” For Browning, Shelley embodied a transcendent idealism and an exulted spiritual poetic vision. Browning, then, turns to the figure of Shelley in his poetry in order to define his own poetic identity in opposition to this notion of the inspired poet-prophet. This is not because Browning does not believe in eternal truths that he sees as embodied in Shelley and his poetry, but
because he preferred to explore in his dramatic poetry the difficulties faced by the individual soul in realizing these ideals in the complexities of the real world.

Browning explores this transition in his first published poem, Pauline: The Fragment of a
Confession, which is widely believed to be one of Browning’s most overtly autobiographical poems. The poet-narrator voices Browning’s youthful passion for Shelley and reflects upon why it is he had to move away from Shelley to forge his own path. The problem that Shelley poses to the young Browning is expressed by the poetnarrator when he bares his soul to his lover,
Pauline. When the poet-narrator describes the journey he has taken from his first intimations of poetic aspiration to his mature poetic stance, he explains that Shelley’s poetry set him the impossible task: “To disentangle, gather sense from song: / Since, song-inwoven, lurked there words which seemed / A key to a new world, the muttering / Of angels, something yet
unguessed by man.” Shelley’s song transports the young poet to spiritual truths, but the challenge for the poet-narrator, and for Browning, is whether he can ultimately embody the ideal forms that he follows in Shelley’s bewitching song. The poet-narrator is anguished when he faces the real world and finds that no ideal can ever be fully realized, and this precipitates a dark period of disillusion and despair. The more mature poet comes out of this period of darkness, declaring: “I aim not even to catch a tone / Of harmonies he [Shelley] called
profusely up.” However, although Browning turns away from Shelley’s transcendent poetry to the necessarily imperfect world of “men in action,” this is not a rejection of Shelley’s idealism. The poet-narrator confesses that Shelley’s song can still be heard: “A melody some wondrous singer sings, / Which, though it haunt men oft in the still eve, / They dream not to essay; yet it no less / But more is honoured” (ll. 222–225). Rather than renouncing Shelley, Browning makes his poetry an abiding symbol for the transcendent truths that cannot be fully expressed in language, which belongs to conceptual thought, but can be apprehended through the poetic imagination.

We hope you can join us to celebrate these inspired young poetic voices.