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.]