Criticism as courtship

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In his latest On Language column, Ben Zimmer examines "Crash Blossoms", and introduces the topic with a literary allusion:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once gave the poetry of her husband, Robert, a harsh assessment, criticizing his habit of excessively paring down his syntax with opaque results. “You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust,” she wrote him, “by sweeping away your little words.”

When Elizabeth Barrett wrote this to Robert Browning, in July of 1845, he was not her husband. They had first met in May of 1845. He was smitten, but she was skeptical, and forbade him to speak or write of love.  His efforts to evade this ban included his poem "The Flight of the Duchess", as Fred Manning Smith suggests ("Elizabeth Barrett and Browning's 'The Flight of the Duchess'", Studies in Philology 39(1):102-117, 1942):

A comparison of The Flight of the Duchess, a poem published by Robert Browning in 1845, with the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, written during their courtship, in 1845-1846, raises several questions:  How much of his own life and the life of Miss Barrett during the year 1845 does Browning bring into The Flight of the Duchess? Does the poem give Browning's answer to the question whether Miss Barrett should disobey her father and go to Italy? May the words of the Gypsy Queen be taken as an expression of Browning's desire to marry Elizabeth? In several poems the poet paid tribute to his wife during their life together in Italy and in several he paid tribute to her after her death — is not this a poem written of her and to her during their courtship? Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese were written during their courtship and are based on things they talk about in their letters of 1845-1846 — may we not say that The Flight of the Duchess bears a similar relation to their letters written during 1845? Scholars have noticed the similarity between the elopement of the Brownings and the flight of Caponsacchi and Pompilia in The Ring and the Book — does The Flight of the Duchess bear a like relation to the elopement, before rather than after it took place?

Elizabeth's "dark dust" remark was part of a letter first discussed in Edward Snyder and Frederic Palmer, "New Light on the Brownings", The Quarterly Review 269:48-63, 1937, and described by Smith as follows ("More Light on 'Elizabeth Barrett and Browning's The Fight of the Duchess'", Studies in Philology 39(4):693-695, 1942):

A letter written by Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning in July, 1845, in which Miss Barrett gives a detailed criticism of "The Flight," has recently come into the possession of Professor Frederic Palmer, one of the authors of the Quarterly Review article. This letter with thirteen letters in which Miss Barrett criticizes other poems by Browning was purchased by Professor George Herbert Palmer in 1932. The other letters have been published (See F. G. Kenyon, New Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning), but for some unknown reason the letter criticizing "The Flight" has never been published. The letter suggests, according to the authors of the Quarterly Review article (they do not publish it because of its length), seventy-three changes in "The Flight," more changes than are suggested in all the other thirteen letters together. Why does Miss Barrett pay so much attention to "The Flight"? In answering this question the authors of the article arrive at certain conclusions I reach in "Elizabeth Barrett and Browning's The Flight of the Duchess."

I haven't been able to find a copy of the full text of this letter, or even of the Snyder and Palmer article, so as to determine which passage(s) in The Flight of the Duchess needed dusting — neither seems to be available on line, and the Penn library's copies of the relevant works are in remote storage.

[Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped to Italy in August of 1846.]

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6 Comments »

  1. MH said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Interesting. In the foreword to The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, which contains many letters from July 1845, their son says "I think it well that the correspondence should be given in its entirety." Yet the letter described in this post is not there.

    [(myl) As well as I can tell from Google Books' "snippet view", this letter is reproduced in a book which may or may not have been published in 1993 under the title The Brownings' Correspondence: July 1845-January 1846, letters 1982-2177. (The Google Books bibliographic record for this item, though appreciated, is so garbled that it's hard to tell what the book actually is -- but it's probably this.)]

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    The full quote from Elizabeth is: "I doubt whether it would not be better & clearer to interpose 'To', & write 'To give thy wondrous self away' – You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust, by sweeping away your little words." Robert evidently followed her advice, since that's how the line appears in "The Flight of the Duchess."

    A couple of observations from literary critics…

    Phyllis Brooks Bartlett, Poems in Process (1951): "She felt that he should furnish more transitions, cut down on his elisions, round out the syntax; her objection to his curtailments is a delightful foretaste of much Browning criticism: 'You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust, by sweeping away your little words.'"

    John Press, The Chequer'd Shade: Reflections on Obscurity in Poetry (1958): "Browning is said to have been so badly hurt by the reception accorded to his Paracelsus, which was criticized for its verbose and involuted style, that he determined upon a surgical excision of connecting words, whose very ruthlessness led to worse confusion than before. Although Betty Miller has disproved this legend it is undeniable that Browning's cavalier way with syntax, coupled with his abrupt transitions, is a prime source of his verbal obscurity. Elizabeth Barrett summed up this stylistic defect in one neat sentence: 'You sometimes make a dust, a dark dust, by sweeping away your little words.'"

  3. Queer Kind of Leads « The Lure said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    [...] Kind of Leads Headlines, actually. Hat tip. Money quote: In their quest for concision, writers of newspaper headlines are, like Robert [...]

  4. danny bloom said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    btw re the crash blossoms story by Ben Z in the Times, i wrote to find out from the artist this news: "Thank you so much!It's a very big honour for us to be featured on NYTimes Mag.
    And it's a great pleasure to read an email like that!
    We're really touched :)
    "Crash Blossoms" was designed by Andrea Manzati and me, Federico Galvani :D"

  5. danny bloom said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    the illustration to the Times story by Ben Zimmer was designed by Andrea Manzati and me, Federico Galvani in Verona Italy, that is…. re

    btw the crash blossoms story by Ben Z in the Times, i wrote to find out from the artist this news: "Thank you so much!It's a very big honour for us to be featured on NYTimes Mag.
    And it's a great pleasure to read an email like that!
    We're really touched :)
    "Crash Blossoms" was designed by Andrea Manzati and me, Federico Galvani :D"

  6. David Micklethwait said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    I put aside Ben Zimmer's "Crash Blossoms" column (in my case, from the International Herald Tribune, Feb 1st) hoping to find (and therefore be able to identify) a pleasing example I cut out of a newspaper some years ago. I seem to have lost it, so the quotation may not be exact, and I cannot identify the source, but it said something like "LEAD BOAT LOST IN ATLANTIC RACE". My first thought was that you'd have to be mad to try to sail across the Atlantic in a lead boat.

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