Occasional Quote of the Day: 19th Century Discontent

Light human nature is too lightly tost
And ruffled without cause, complaining on–
Restless with rest, until, being overthrown,
It learneth to lie quiet. Let a frost
Or a small wasp have crept to the inner-most
Of our ripe peach, or let the wilful sun
Shine westward of our window,–straight we run
A furlong’s sigh as if the world were lost.
But what time through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,–we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Ay, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear submissive o’er the stormy main
God’s chartered judgments walk for evermore.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

On first glance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1805-1855) would seem to have lived a life of privilege and fortune, with little room for discontent or unhappiness anywhere. Her family, which resided in the north of England, was extremely wealthy on both sides, the result of both inheritances and ownership of Jamaican sugar plantations. As the oldest of twelve children, she had a very comfortable upbringing, well-educated, and encouraged in her love of poetry-writing by her mother, who kept every one of her daughter’s notebooks, giving us a fascinating glimpse into Elizabeth’s stylistic and philosophical development as she aged.

By her mid-teens though, she’d become an invalid, suffering with disabling headaches and a loss of mobility. Subsequently, she developed chest and lung pain (probably some form of tuberculosis, combined with a neurological disorder causing frequent and temporary paralysis), and she became dependent on laudanum to ease her pain. As with most drug dependencies, a vicious cycle ensued; and the drugs that eased her suffering on the one hand, made her more frail on the other, and as did many people unfortunate enough to be plagued with complaints of the lungs, her family began a search for more agreeable climes. They moved around the country looking for sun and warmth (rather futilely, if one knows anything about British weather). After the drowning death of her brother in a yachting accident in Devon, she and her family moved to Wimpole Street in London, where the almost-bedridden Elizabeth became an advocate for women’s rights and child labor reforms, and found solace in religion, in which she and her family dissented from the established church.

Family fortunes had taken a downturn with the abolition of the slave trade in 1833 and its impact on the Jamaican plantations, so life in Wimpole Street was less luxurious than the family was accustomed to. Elizabeth’s financial contribution (she was now writing full-time) was welcomed, although her stiff-necked father, who never acknowledged that the family had fallen upon penurious times was too stubborn to admit it.

In 1844, publication of her book, Poems, came to the attention of Robert Browning, a poet with an up-again, down-again reputation at the time. (The obscure and complicated Sordello, published in 1840, had almost “dun him in” for good, with Thomas Carlyle famously remarking, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.” And Tennyson consigned it to the ash-heap of poetic history when he said: “There were only two lines in it that I understood, the first and the last, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.’”)

Browning began with a series of letters to Elizabeth, she responded, and the two met in Wimpole Street for the first time in 1845. After that, a courtship began in earnest, carried out secretly, but under the nose of, her father who would strongly have disapproved. In 1846, they married, honeymooned in Paris, and then moved to Italy for Elizabeth’s health. “Papa” disinherited her and made sure she was completely cut off from the rest of her birth family, and that was that.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Robert remained very much in love, and lived happily, touring throughout Italy for nine years, as her health gradually declined and she became morphine-dependent; until, at the age of 55, she died in his arms.

I’d never read the little sonnet at the top of this post, until I ran across it in the course of wracking my brains for something to write about today. It seems to fit the bill, and it matches my mood and my thoughts at the moment. For which of us has never had those moments when a small, unwelcome, wasp comes buzzing into the personal space at the core of our innermost peach, or when the sun is glaring in our eyes, and reflecting/refracting off the windshield, and we can’t see a thing while driving home in the evening? Those moments when a yappy little dog won’t stop nipping at our heels or when the cat has left his hard little plastic toy on the floor right where we get out of bed (a present! how sweet!) and we step on it, in our bare feet, in the middle of the night?

Those moments when we start to hyperventilate and jabber, and fulminate and fume, and “we run/A furlong’s sigh as if the world were lost.”

But it isn’t:

. . . through the heart and through the brain
God hath transfixed us,–we, so moved before,
Attain to a calm. Ay, shouldering weights of pain,
We anchor in deep waters, safe from shore,
And hear submissive o’er the stormy main
God’s chartered judgments walk for evermore.

Relax. These minor annoyances shall pass. They always do.

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