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 blanching, 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
When we think about the great Romantic poets, we tend to forget that one of the fiercest, most popular and powerful of them all was a woman: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Well educated, intelligent and political, she was held in high regard as a poet long before the young Robert Browning began writing admiring letters to her, a woman six years his elder. Eloping to Italy seems somehow the natural course for this pair.
But apart from the love story, apart from the romance and the tragedy and the drama of her life, she is a poet worth reading for the sheer skill of her work. And this is one of my favourite of her poems. Look at how the language shifts, from octet to sestet. How she sets up the argument in fairly typical Romantic language, and then confronts you with that startling image – the grief-stricken one turned, quite literally, to stone. And as the poem progresses, everything is pared back. The progression of grief, from loud protestations to stricken silence to utter immobility. Matched perfectly by the language, so we end with no flourishes, no fanciness, no everlastings or shriekings or woe. Just those simple, cold, emptied words: touch. Weep. Go.
I love her work, and I love this poem. Emily Dickinson counted her as an influence, as did Edgar Allan Poe, and both Rossetti siblings. And that’s just of her own time – surely this poem was in Sylvia Plath’s head when she began “Edge” with the line: ‘The woman is perfected’?
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