A Luminous Consciousness

Bain News Service / Library of Congress / Rosa Inocencio Smith / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today, March 6, is the 210th birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is also half of one of literary history’s most beloved power couples. Harriet Waters Preston wrote of Elizabeth’s life in the June 1899 issue of The Atlantic:

An active girl until she was fifteen … she received at that age an injury to the spine, one of whose results was the pulmonary disorder which made her an invalid for life, and of which she had almost died before the world ever heard of her name. She never grew in bodily stature after that time, but nothing could arrest the growth of the mind which her fragile frame barely sufficed to contain. She absorbed knowledge, in her seclusion, as naturally as a plant absorbs moisture and aliment from the most unlikely-looking soil; transmuting what she appropriated, with plantlike unconsciousness, into color, fragrance, and wonderful intricacies of form. … She possessed within her own luminous consciousness the irrefragable evidence of things unseen.

Meanwhile, Preston continues, though Elizabeth’s father supported her work and published some of her early poems himself, he allowed her little freedom and “made no secret of his conviction that her thoughts ‘ought to be in the next world.’” Elizabeth spent the first decades of her adult life cloistered in her room in London, studying classical literature, writing her poems and letters, and waiting to die.

Which is why her 1846 marriage to Robert Browning is worth remembering on her birthday.

As she wrote in Sonnets from the Portuguese, she saw their love as a kind of transmutation, the death of her old self that she’d long been expecting and the birth of another, happier, higher one. Love, writing, and transcendence were nearly synonymous for this couple; their relationship began in January 1845—when Robert wrote to say “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett”—and continued in letters throughout that year. In September of 1846, they eloped to Italy, fleeing Elizabeth’s disapproving father. And in 1850, Elizabeth published Sonnets from the Portuguese—the story of a transformative love affair, disguised as a translation.

My personal favorite from the sonnet sequence imagines the two poets in a kind of private afterlife, between death and heaven:

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvëd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented?  Think!  In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence.  Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovëd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

And there’s an echo of that poem in this one from Marion Pelton Guild, published in the September 1900 issue of The Atlantic, where she addresses the couple as immortal inspiration for poets—and lovers—everywhere:

O mated souls, that through the blissful deeps
Of heaven on heaven wing your ethereal way ...
Know ye how all the world of lovers heaps
Its garlands on the living words that aye
The holy passion of your vows shall say
Till Song itself to gray oblivion creeps? ...

Your white ideal, crowned with the truth, remains
Steadfast amid the shock of baser things;
Your love the golden seal of witness brings
To Nature’s charter pure, whereto man strains.

Robert and Elizabeth’s letters are collected here at Project Gutenberg, where you can also find all of her Sonnets from the Portuguese.