Context: E.B Browning (1806-1861) was a poet within the Romantic tradition. She was born in England, but her poetry became famous in both England and the US. This poem was published in Sonnets from the Portuguese, written ca. 1845–1846 and published first during 1850, is a collection of 44 love sonnets. This poem was written in 1845 and is one of her most wellknown poems. As a person she was very shy and needed her husband to convince her publish them. She also thought her verse was too private. Elizabeth’s work had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
Themes: Love is the major theme. Much of Barrett Browning’s work carries a religious theme. She had read and studied such works as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
Context: This poem was written in 1862 during the Civil War. It was a very productive year for Emily Dickinson’s poetry writing. She composed more than 300 verses this year. I wrote previously on Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) on this blog and mentioned her poor health which may have contributed to her self-imposed isolation and preferred confinement to her private rooms. She seldom went out. Modern scholars have tried their very best to figure out what may have happened to her health this year because of what she wrote in this poem. We know Emily sought help in an opthalmic consulation with Dr. Henry Willard Williams in Boston during the Civil War. She had eye problems. As Blanchard states in his article published in 2012 no records related to any diagnosis have survived. “Photophobia, aching eyes, and a restriction in her ability to work up close were her main symptoms. Iritis, exotropia, or psychiatric problems are the most frequent diagnoses offered to explain her difficulties.” (Blanchard 2012)
There’s a lot of physical pain present in many of Emily’s poems. We don’t know what her illnesses were. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “Bright’s disease”, which is not an illness but a term that was used for a collection of medical symptoms including nephritis (kidney disease) and hypertension. Maybe it was something neurological or maybe she suffered from mental health issues. She was also a colorful personality with some eccentric habits like refusing to see people, even close family members from time to time.
It’s hard to know what her problems were. If she had visual problems this may have caused her headaches. In this poem she compares her pain to a funeral going on inside her head. Notice how the physical pain she’s feeling is transformed into noisy mourners until the mourners sense themselves and finally sit down. Something else takes over which is called The Service. “The Service” is also uncomfortable and noisy to the narrator and she feels a repeated drumming inside the head. Notice the narrator in the poem does not describe what she sees, only what she hears. The noise goes on until “Being” and “Ear” become one. Take extra notice to what happens in the final sentences. The narrator drops down after “a Plank of Reason”and then “hit a World”. This will probably let you know the narrator doesn’t die a physical death, but rather returns to the world and to her senses.
Themes: Pain in the head, sensitivity to noise, tinnitus?, migraine?, depression?
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
Blanchard, D.L (2012). “Emily Dickinson’s ophthalmic consultation with Henry Willard Williams, MD.” Quote from Abstract.
This volume of compiled and selected letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. It contains the letters written by Emily to her friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington (1830-1913). Unlike her famous friend Susan H. was a very social and outgoing woman. She also travelled a lot, wrote a lot and edited a lot. She read and commented on Emily’s poetry. The letters are important since they spur a continuous 36-years correspondence between Emily and Susan who ended up living as neighbours at Amherst. The letters who not only depict family matters give us somewhat new information on how the women worked on Emily’s poetry and how the friendship developed between the over the years. If the ladies were more than friends cannot be estimated from the letters only. We simply don’t know if it ever was any physical love relation; though the introduction to this book indicates Emily’s feelings for Susan were sexual. As an unmarried woman living in an early 19th century Calvinist society it’s also very likely Emily Dickinson never had much of sexual experience at all. Our society today with access to various post-modern theories and psychoanalysis interpret freely upon the lives and texts of past authors; but interpretation and speculation is what remains when we have no definite answers.
There’s a poetic touch to each letter Emily wrote to Susan. As pointed out in the commentary section attached to each letter there is for an example a comment on Emily’s letter writing style on February 1852: “Throughout Emily’s letters to Susan, she combines a language of courtly love with terms of spiritual devotion. In 1915, Susan’s daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi described her Aunt Emily in the Atlantic Monthly, saying ‘Her devotion to those she loved was that of a knight for his lady.” (Hart & Smith 1998, p. 13) That’s an interesting point of view from someone who once met with ms. Dickinson and her circle of family and friends. Research on Dickinson’s sexuality has been done since professor Rebecca Patterson published her ground breaking work The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951). Pattersson argued Emily’s muse and inspiration was another friend, Kate Anthon. Her published research was not welcomed in the 1950’s and received a lot of criticism based on fear and prejudice. The relatives of Kate Anthon forbade Pattersson further access to any letters and diaries as soon as they learned of her thesis. She managed to copy most of the material before the Anthons had most of the correspondence burned. Fearing any hint of a possible lesbian relationship with one of Americas most famous poets. Some researchers and critics today still wish to masque Emily’s homoerotic poetry and letter-style writing and refer to these outbursts as “romantic friendship”. The desire to oppress this side of Emily’s authorship is pointed out in Comment’s essay Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson (2001). It’s interesting how interpretations continues to stir up controversy.
Comment, Kristin M. 2001. “Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson”. Legacy. 18 (2): 167-181.
Dickinson, Emily, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith. 1998. Open me carefully: Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press.
A FEW YEARS ago a biography over a Victorian Archbishop’s wife saw daylight. It got some attention in British press. Mary Benson (1841-1918) was an ordinary vicar’s wife whose husband one day became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Edward W. Benson (1829-1896) reached the highest office within the Church of England and of the world-wide Anglican communion. Author Rodney Bolt has used diaries, and novels written by the Benson’s to produce this biography. The time covers both Victorian and Edwardian England.
MUCH FUSS was reported in media about Mary Benson’s believed lesbian lifestyle after the death of her husband. She set up household with the previous Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife; Lucy Tait who was allowed to sleep in the same bed as Mary and on the late Edward Benson’s side. There’s not much which can confirm these circumstances today except from letters; diaries and our own conclusions.
Mary Benson proved to be a very independent woman. The Victorian values of her time didn’t stop her to do what she wanted to. She was described by William Gladstone the British Prime Minister, as the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’. Despite all the Victorian values concerning women and the role of a woman in Mary Benson’s position she managed to keep up with a double-lifestyle as the wife of the Archbishop and a more private self. One of her children remember she was often away, seldom played with them or talked to them. As her diaries proves; this wasn’t an easy way of life. She had a lot of relations with women. She tried to reconcile these relations and feelings with faith and more devoution to her husband. Often pointing them out in the diaries she prayed a lot to be free from her “carnal affections”. At the death of her husband when she was 55 she could finally allow herself more freedom and set up household with long-time friend Lucy Tait.
A Victorian Marriage
IT WAS CREEPY to learn that Edward W. Benson befriended Mary as an eleven-year-old child and thought of her as a future bride to marry. Perhaps this wasn’t an unusual situation among the Victorians that men from the middle classes could search for future brides in a similar way. Mary Sidgwick was also his 2nd cousin and the families knew each other well. He writes about the “friendship” in his diary:
“As I have always been very fond of [Minnie] and she of me with the love of a little sister, and as I have heard of her fondness for me commented on by many persons, and have been told that I was the only person at whose departure she ever cried, as a child, and how diligent she has always been in reading books that I have mentioned to her, and in learning pieces of poetry which I have admired, it is not strange that I, who from the circumstances of my family am not likely to marry for many years to come, and who find in myself a growing distaste for forming friendships (fit to be so called) among new acquaintances and who am fond indeed (if not too fond) of little endearments, and who also know my weakness for falling suddenly in love, in the common sense of the word, and have already gone too far more than once in these things and have therefore reason to fear that I might on some sudden occasion be led [the following in cipher: into a step I might all my life repent] — it is not strange that I should have thought first of the possibility that some day dear little Minnie might become my wife.” (Bolt 2011, p.24)
WE DO HAVE the adult Mary Benson’s thoughts on these circumstances:
“I realise that he chose me deliberately, as a child who was very fond of him and whom he might educate — he even wanted to preserve himself from errant fallings-in-love... God, though gavest me a nature which desired to please — and on its natural gaiety and natural-lovingness had been planted by my Mother a strong sense of duty. . . .” (Bolt 2011, p. 25)
SADLY as noted from her diary entrance we can relate exactly to how she was brought up in her social environment – to “please” and be aware of ones “duty”. As commented on by the author she was also below the age of consent when Edward W. Benson wrote his diary entrance. The consent age for girls in the 1850s was twelve. 25 years later the age was raised to thirteen. In 1885 it was raised to sixteen years thanks to the Criminal Law Amendment Act (Bolt 2011, p. 319). BUT AS this biography will reveal things went pretty well for the young lady. She managed to develop into an independent individual which was quite unusual considering her position as a vicar’s wife.
I THOUGHT the biography was quite interesting; and that its author did manage to carry out a well-researched project. WE shall be lucky considering the fact that the Victorians were excellent diary keepers and letter-writers. Communication through letters was the past times social media. Mail was delivered several times a day and on Saturdays too. It was the glory days of all postal offices. With such much material at hand I was a little disappointed the author fictionalized some parts. This is noted in the introduction and it’s no longer unusual writers of biographies today use this method.
The Children of the Bensons
Despite modern assumptions on lesbian sex at Lambeth Palace Mary Benson quickly gave birth to six children. Many of them would become great names themselves and seemed just as eccentric as their mother. Neither was the marrying type. Her daughter Maggie, Margaret Benson (1865-1916) became an Egyptologist who were among the first women in England to study at Oxford. She also took part in Archeological excavations i Egypt. Their son Arthur Benson wrote the lines for Land of Hope and Glory while Fred Benson wrote Adventure books. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) shocked everyone and left his priesthood within the Anglican Church only to convert to Roman Catholicism. He was also a writer.
AFTER HIS CONVERSION to Catholicism Robert Hugh Benson received a lot of hate-mail! Men, women and even little school girls wrote nasty letters to the most unspeakable human being in the protestant kingdom! The defection didn’t go unnoticed in the press either. Finally, he moved. He had a long career in the Roman Catholic Church and in Rome he became a chamberlain to the Pope, 1911 and was entitled monsignor. Robert Hugh Benson was also a writer of fiction and wrote a very popular novel The Lord of the World (1907).
It’s considered one of the first modern dystopian novels. It has been called ‘prophetic’ by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Themes? The Lord of the World is about the Anti-Christ and his reign on earth. And the story goes as follows – Since the Labour Party took control of the British Government in 1917, the British Empire has been a single party state. The British royal Family been deposed, the House of Lords has been abolished, Oxford and Cambridge have been closed down, and all their professors sent into exile in Ireland. Marxism, Atheism and Secular Humanism which one of the novel’s protagonists describes as the tools of Freemasonry dominate culture and politics. The world now has only three main religious forces: Catholicism, Secular Humanism, and “the Eastern religions”. His horror and ghost fiction are collected in The Light Invisible (1903) and A Mirror of Shallott (1907). Many of the Benson’s children had mental problems all their lives. We don’t know about any diagnosis, but bipolar disorder may be a rational explanation today. Maggie Benson was deeply affected and died only 50 after a mental breakdown.
The Benson Brothers reflect upon their parents marriage
Arthur Benson (1862-1925):
Arthur: [….] It was a case of real natural incompatibility. Mama was an instinctive pagan, hence her charm. Papa was an instinctive puritan with a rebellious love of art. Papa on the whole hated and distrusted the people he didn’t wholly approve of. Mama saw their faults and loved them. How very few friends Papa ever had. […] He disliked feeling people’s superiority. His mind was better and stronger than his heart and his heart didn’t keep his mind in check. It was a fine character, not a beautiful one. He certainly had a tendency to bully people as he believed from good motives. Mama never wanted to direct or interfere with people and I think was the most generous and disinterested character I have ever known. But her diary is very painful to me because it shows how little in common they had and how cruel he was. [Bolt 2011, p. 217]
Fred Benson (1867-1940):
Fred: Papa was a very difficult person to deal with, because he was terrifying, and remembered things, not very accurately, because he remembered the points which were in his favour and forgot the points which were not. Mama forgot everything, or is she remembered, forgot the sense of resentment. Then he wanted, as you say, obedience and enthusiasm. Mama never claimed either exactly, but got both. Then Papa cared intensely about details, and details never interested Mama; and one must remember, as you say, the other side — and Papa’s affection, when it rose to the surface, was very revealing indeed. [From correspondence between the two brothers in 1925. [Bolt 2011, p.p 217-218]
Bolt, Rodney. As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson. London: Atlantic Books, 2011.
Context : This poem was written by Oscar Wilde and is dedicated to his younger sister, Isola Wilde who died suddenly and unexpected. Wilde was 12 years old when she died in 1867 and her death caused a deep grief in the Wilde family as she was beloved. She was only ten and Oscar made numerous visits to her gravesite in the village. He wrote this poem seven years later. First published in 1881, rev. 1882.
Themes : Death, loss and mourning; as the narrator visits the grave of a loved one. She’s a young woman who died suddenly and the narrator asks us to be careful as we approach her grave where she rests.
TREAD lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast;
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.
Peace, peace; she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet;
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.
I like to make parallels between written text and biography; today the correct term would be biographical criticism. This method of interpreting any text has become quite popular, even if it’s got some obvious traps concerning objectivity. When were left out on information we tend to make own explanations and give in to speculations. THIS becomes obvious when we deal with the life of famous authors. We may possess certain data available to us through various records from archives which can explain why an author wrote as they did.
Some keep the Sabbath going to the Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
WHILE it seems obvious the poem takes a critical stance towards organized religion, such as worshipping in churches and listening to long sermons it doesn’t reveal so much on why she’s critical. She also produce an alternative; herself in nature and surrounding herself with nature she says she doesn’t need a church and experience religion through watching the God’s work in nature is enough for her. Let’s dive into some biographical reading on this poem and see if we can find some solutions on why she feels the way she does!
Emily Dickinson and Religion : Calvinism and revival in Amherst, Massachusetts
Themes like death and immortality are extremely common in Dickinson’s poetry. Plagued by ill-health all her life it’s not totally strange to understand her mind occupied many thoughts on these matters. Her social milieu and the society was governed by religious views and to alienate oneself from the congregation was very rare and likely looked upon as something negative and suspicious. Themes like death, immortality and Religion was not uncommon among nineteenth-century poets. It’s somewhat strange Dickinson’s poems came to be criticized for being so concentrated upon death when so many other poets like Keats and Whitman were on a similar stand and often returned to this topic. Many have tried to categorize Dickinson’s about death and broken up her entire collection of poetic work into four categories on this matter:
Poems in which death represents extinction.
Poems which dramatize the possibility on the survival of the soul.
Poems which embraze a faith in immortality.
Poems about God and God’s care of humans.
In a letter to a friend (1850) Emily stated: “I am standing alone in rebellion.” She never joined the Congregational Church in Amherst. Another letter (L13) reveals her ideas on christian faith: “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die”. I think Emily Dickinson was critical about organized religion. It’s quite clear from her poetry that she does hold some religious views but they are not bound to any traditional faith or system of beliefs.
WHILE WE continue to lament the downfall of Oscar Wilde it is easy to forget there were other victims in this Victorian tragedy. Wilde was in fact a married man with two children when he was sent to prison in Reading. As the scandal became fact his wife Constance Lloyd Wilde quickly got herself and their two sons out of England. She was equally exiled and she did change her family name back to Holland. As wife she remained loyal and never applied for a divorce. She even visited him occasionally while he was in prison. She also came and delivered the news his mother had passed away.
OSCAR WILDE was one of my favourite writers in my teenage years and later I got know most of his life thanks to Richard Ellman’s biography. His wife was less famous so it was really refreshing reading this biography on Mrs. Wilde by Franny Moyle. In this “review” I will slightly refer to other books and papers. As I took notice while reading about Oscar Wilde’s life over the years one do get the sense he wasn’t always a very nice husband. From one interview with his adventurous love Lord Alfred Douglas’, or Bosie the ageing lord spoke frankly about Wilde’s relation with Constance Wilde and remarked that he often saw him impatience with her. This was at least a reported fact in Ellman’s biography and repeated by Moyle as well. Despite this Lord Douglas choose not to honour lady Wilde and blamed Wilde’s downfall on her.
Constance Wilde (2 January 1859 – 7 April 1898), born Constance Mary Lloyd she did not have a happy childhood since her mother abused her verbally and physically. Her father died early and the negative experiences with her mother made her shy and a bit withdrawn. The Wildes and the Lloyds knew each other since the irish years so when Constance met Oscar they weren’t strangers. Moyle uses a lot of previous unpublished letters as she draws the story of Mrs Wilde. It’s a well-researched biography.
Despite her brother Otho’s warnings (he had heard “something” about Oscar) she got married to him in May 1884 and idolized him from the start. It seem to have been a love-match and they seemed happy together. They quickly started a family and she bore him two sons. Wilde seem to have been sexually uninterested in her after the birth of their second son. He often complained she had gained weight and the boy-girlish persona she possessed before the marriage was all gone.
Life with Oscar Wilde
WE don’t know when Constance found out her husband was gay but he lived a double-life with her and the family. Most of his time was spent at various hotels in the city and he would sometimes live with her and the children at Tite Street, Chelsea although this was not very common. SHE seemed to have accepted her husband’s busy lifestyle leavening her to take care of their home and children. Despite being an absent father she shared his interests in literature and fashion. Both were involved in the Victorian Dress Reform Movement.
She must have known about his sexuality by 1895 when Wilde was tried and imprisoned for “gross indecency”, or homosexual acts. After Wilde’s imprisonment, Constance changed her and her sons’ last name to Holland to dissociate themselves from Wilde’s scandal. According to Ellman’s biography on Oscar Wilde this happened after Constance was denied to stay at a hotel because of the Wilde family name. The couple never divorced and though Constance visited Oscar in prison so she could tell him the news of his mother’s death, she also forced him to give up his parental rights and later, after he had been released from prison, refused to send him any money unless he no longer associated with Douglas.
The Final years and illnesses of Constance Wilde
A mysterious ill health—headaches, joint pains, weakness and trembling in the limbs, partial facial paralysis and exhaustion continued to plague her in the exile. According to The Guardian, “speculative theories [about her death] have ranged from spinal damage following a fall down stairs to syphilis caught from her husband.” However, again according to The Guardian, Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde, “unearthed medical evidence within private family letters, which has enabled a doctor to determine the likely cause of Constance’s demise. The letters reveal symptoms nowadays associated with multiple sclerosisbut apparently wrongly diagnosed by her two doctors”.
Constance sought help from two doctors. One of them was a “nerve doctor” from Heidelberg, Germany who resorted to dubious remedies. The second doctor was a high-society surgeon named Luigi Maria Bossi and he conducted two operations (for uterine fibroid) in 1895 and 1898, the latter of which ultimately led to her death. According to The Lancet, “the surgery Bossi performed in December 1895 was probably an anterior vaginal wall repair to correct urinary difficulties from a presumed bladder prolapse. In retrospect, the actual problem was probably neurogenic and not structural in origin.”(Alberge 2015) Bossi was also a professor of gynaecology at Genoa University and a fellow of the British Gynecological Society. Bossi fell out with his colleagues for championing surgery to fix now-discredited “pelvic madness.”
During the second surgery in April 1898 Bossi probably “did not attempt a hysterectomy but merely excised the tumour in a myomectomy” (Robins 1995). However, shortly after the surgery Constance developed uncontrollable vomiting, which led to dehydration and death. The immediate cause of death was likely severe paralytic ileus, which developed either as a result of the surgery itself or of intra-abdominal sepsis (blood poisoning). “Ultimately, both Bossi and the hapless Constance met their ends tragically: he by the bullet of an assassin and she by the knife of an irresponsible surgeon.” (Robins 1995). Bossi was killed by a jealous husband of one of his patients.
Dalya Alberge (1 January 2015).”Letters unravel mystery of the death of Oscar Wilde’s wife”.