Today is Valentine’s Day, a day that will divide the country into factions of smiling (some would say smug) couples and cynical singles who eye the fourteenth of February with suspicion and resentment. Personally, I have little reason to celebrate this day as it has always found me unattached and most of my memories associated with it are almost always painful in some way. On this day, I have known many disappointments and I have even known tragedy. So you may be surprised to learn that in spite of this black history, I still feel a sense of joy in my heart when the store aisles flush with pink and red decorations putting me in mind of those early days of childhood when the ultimate expressions of affection were little carnations and paper cards with cartoon characters. You may be inclined to believe that this holiday is merely a modern invention, a commercial conspiracy designed to add to the swollen resources of florists, card companies and chocolate makers (although I always find it charming to think that for one day of the year, the politicians, oil magnates, and weapons manufacturers stand aside in deference to the mighty House of Cadbury), but many of the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day actually originated in the 19th century. The development of the postal service allowed men and women the ability to freely communicate with one another in a manner that had previously been quite impossible and so the popularity of the valentine grew from an essential desire for love and self expression. In honor of that beautiful tradition, I would like share some thoughts on one of the greatest love stories of the Victorian age: the love between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
Elizabeth Barrett was a poetical prodigy, a genius recognized within her own lifetime yet secluded from the outside world due to her status as a chronic invalid. In this deprivation, she valued the love of her family above all things and shared close relationships with all of her many brothers and sisters. Over their happiness only two shadows were constantly present: Elizabeth’s illness and a strictly religious father who forbade any of his children from ever marrying. To do so against his wishes would have meant the loss of an inheritance and permanent alienation from fatherly regard. Into this close world of isolation came Robert Browning, also a poet, though less successful, and a great admirer of Elizabeth’s work. He sought an interview with her and from the very first moment of their communication, he made it clear that his love of her poetry could not be contained solely within the scope of her written words. In his first letter to her, he wrote: “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too.” They continued their correspondence for over a year, mostly through letters as Elizabeth’s failing health made personal encounters difficult. To her family, their relationship was one that was purely intellectual and they attached no suspicion at all to words exchanged between one poet and another. But through those letters a great love was born, and the woman who had previously only thought of death as her future found strength and hope in the words of her intellectual and spiritual equal.
Occasionally when reading the personal letters of people who lived in the past, one can feel a sense of embarrassment at prying into the secret lives of such extraordinary people. Still I cannot fathom a fictional love to measure equal to the passion and honesty of those beautiful letters and I am exceedingly thankful that they were preserved and that I have had the privilege of witnessing the evidence of such devotion. It is devastating to see how often Elizabeth’s illness seemed to preoccupy her thoughts and at first, kept her from encouraging Robert Browning’s love for her. Yet he met every expression of self-doubt and morbidity with assurance of his constancy and Elizabeth began to write sonnets inspired by her feelings for him. In this first sonnet from a collection that would be entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese, you can see the beginnings of a change in Elizabeth’s mentality when the death that she has longed expected turns out to be something quite unexpected.
‘I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove—
‘Guess now who holds thee!’—‘Death,’ I said, But, there,
The silver answer rang, ‘Not Death, but Love.’
To the shock of her family and London society, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped and spent the remainder of their days in Florence, Italy. Although the pursuit of her heart cost her very dearly in the estrangement from her once beloved father, the love she held for Robert Browning most certainly saved her life. She even grew strong enough to give birth to their only child, a son, nicknamed Pen. In reviewing their story, modern academics are inclined to take a rather cynical view of the marriage of the Brownings, primarily due to the fact that even without her inheritance it was still Elizabeth who supported the family through her own resources. To these academics, I would advise a step back from their work to remember why they chose to advance their education in the first place. Surely there must be times even in the midst of rigorous study when we can pause from a mechanical treatment of a work and allow ourselves to be in awe of the wonders of human experience. I would highly recommend Julia Markus’ Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning for an intelligent insight into this remarkable relationship. I guarantee that even the stoniest heart will crack in sympathy with these loving poets.
I do not believe that Valentine’s Day is meant exclusively for romantic love. It is a day when you can remember your friends and family and anyone who holds a special place in your heart. This is a day when you have the choice to reject the commercial expectations and just let someone know how much you value their presence in your life. How many people would happily surrender expensive gifts and nights out in crowded restaurants in exchange for an honest expression of feeling? Remember the example set for us by the Victorians and have a Happy Valentine’s Day!
Music: “My Funny Valentine”-Ella Fitzgerald
Book: Sonnets from the Portuguese-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Film: My Favorite Year (1982)