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May 16, 2016


I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless—
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air,
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blenching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death;
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe,
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath!
Touch it! the marble eyelids are not wet—
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1844

COMMENTARY: At the point in her life when Elizabeth Barrett Browning published Poems in 1844, she’d had much to be unhappy about. She was 38 years old, unmarried, had lost two of her favorite brothers to illness, felt oppressed by her domineering father, was addicted to opioids, and had been bedridden with lung and neurological problems for many years. Despite having written poetry all of her life, her published work was slight (a translation of Aeschylus and a short book of sonnets) and had earned her only modest recognition. Though her condition would improve over the next decade—after her 1844 book catapulted her to literary fame and after she won the doting admiration of her future husband Robert Browning—a sense of life survived rather than lived, of constricting futility, would often be present in her work.

In a way, this poem is an elaboration on Hamlet’s “It out-Herods Herod” speech—a favoring of the tight-lippedness of truth over the theatrics of the sentimental. But while Hamlet urged reticence for artistic aptness, Browning here argues that true grief cannot help but be reticent. The moment that grief “beats upward” with cries of anguish—the moment it adopts the “half-taught” contrivances of “poetry” is the moment where it stops being paralysis and starts being performance. It “flies and goes” in the very act of expressing itself—this being one of the ironies of the poem.

One Comment
  1. Chris Penna permalink

    I like your observation of the paradox that overt expression can possibly diminish the genuine and the quandary that puts the poet in. This poem reminds me of several of her Sonnets from the Portuguese where silence is a recurrent motif (see for ex. # XXi, which begins “Say over again, and yet once over again,/ That thou dost love me” and then ends nine lines later with, “Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll/ The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,/To love me also in silence with thy soul.”

    I like the linking of sounds, esp. in the first 3 lines, “passionless,” “incredulous,” “anguish.” And the last two lines are great. Her monument’s a kind of anti-Ozymandias.

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