26 August 2007

Songs from the Portuguese

My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
God set between His After and Before,
And strike up and strike off the general roar
Of the rushing world a melody that floats
In a serene air purely. Antidotes
Of medicated music, answering for
Mankind's forlornest uses, thou canst pour
From thence into their ears. God's will devotes
Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly? or a fine
Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing---of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing? Choose.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1845)

A bit of personal context: this was written by Elizabeth Barrett in 1844-45, during her very secret courtship of Robert Browning. Those of you who are fond of early Victorian literature will no doubt remember the eccentric, tyrannical father. Well, Elizabeth had one of these; Edward Moulton Barrett, a former sugar planter from Jamaica, was deadset opposed to the marriage of any of his children, and his eldest child Elizabeth had fragile health. She was already a famous poet and Greek translator when she met Robert in '45. They married and moved to Italy, where they lived until her death 16 years later.

Elizabeth composed the poems for Robert's eyes only, but he was convinced they constituted the finest series of sonnets since Shakespeare, and persuaded her to publish them. She agreed, but referred to them as translations from the Portuguese, rather than her own works.



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