Weekly Assignment #1

August 29, 2006 at 2:40 pm (Weekly Assignments)

The first part of the weekly assignment is to ask a question about the reading for this week — a real question; i.e., something you don’t know the answer to. ONE sentence only, please: questions of more than one sentence will not receive credit. I might give an extra point for great questions. Questions are due by midnight on Monday. Late questions will not be accepted.

The second part of the weekly assignment is to answer someone’s question (not your own). You must cite at least one authoritative source. These answers can be as long as you like; I might give an extra point for great answers. Answers are due by midnight on Wednesday. Late answers will not be accepted.

Submit all questions and answers as comments to this post. Feel free to post other commentary in the comments, as well.



  1. Jake Burnett said,

    Okay, kind of an obvious question: Why are they called “Sonnets from the Portugese”?

  2. Eric Gerson said,

    I know the answer to Jake’s question, I need only find a reputable source to support the claim. Therefore, I am calling the question.

  3. Sarah Simpson said,

    What, in a bigger nutshell than the text offers, is the story of Electra?

  4. Daniela Newland said,

    We know how Elizabeth’s father felt about her marriage (or actually, marriage for his children in general), but how did Robert’s family feel about his connection to the older and famous poet?

  5. Chris Nelson said,

    I’m afraid this, too, is an obvious question: What was Elizabeth Barrett’s literary reputation, if any, prior to her meeting Robert Browning?
    And, if I may do so in the same post, I would like to call Sarah’s question. Now, all I need is a reputable source.

  6. Eric Gerson said,

    What is the significance of Pisa for the two poets, as they mention Pisa quite a bit in their letters.

  7. Daniela Newland said,

    I’d like to call Chris’s question-thanks.

  8. Laura Robinson said,

    QUESTION: Since many biblical references appear in Browning’s writing (implicitly or explicitly), do we know her view of God or her practice of faith (as this certainly would play into her view of life and death)?

  9. Laura Robinson said,

    I’ll take Daniela’s question. I’ve found some leads…

  10. Meredith Willis said,

    This is pretty open ended and is more of an opinion type question, but: What is the relationship between Death and Love in the Sonnets?
    And I’d like to take on Eric’s question about Pisa!

  11. Holly Ellern said,

    Okay, so I don’t really know my Greek writers. Who is Theocritus (mentioned in Sonnet 1), to which of his works does Barrett refer, and how does her comparison to (and/or identification with) the work she mentions contribute to the meaning of the sonnet?
    I’ll take Laura’s question about Barrett’s religious life!

  12. Kelly Mahaffey said,

    Not to steal the question from class, but what is encoding?

  13. Jake Burnett said,

    Dibs on Holly’s question.

  14. susanna branyon said,

    Dibs on Kelly’s question.

  15. susanna branyon said,

    That last one on encoding is mine. Sorry. I’m new at blogging.
    Is anyone else suspicious of the math problem we have to answer to put up a comment? Doesn’t it seem unnecessarily smug for the computer to call it a “simple math question”? Makes me feel downright un-post-worthy…

  16. Sarah Simpson said,

    I’ll answer Chris’s question.

  17. Sarah Simpson said,

    Nevermind. I’ll take Meredith’s question about death and love. Just gimme a minute…

  18. Lindsay S. said,

    QUESTION: Who did EBB consider her literary influences?
    PS: I TOTALLY failed the math question first time around.

  19. Matt Simmons said,

    Does anyone find it significant that EBB uses the rather anachronistic Petrarchan structure instead of the Spenserian/”English” structure which is more thematically similar to her own sonnets (can’t you just physically hear her swooning over Epithalamion Seventy-Five: “One day I wrote her name upon the strand..”?), or is the choice arbitrary?

  20. susanna branyon said,

    I think it was popular in Victorian England to encode romantic feelings in bouquets of flowers (aka floriography); therefore, do the flowers in Sonnet 44–eglantine and ivy–have any significance?

  21. Aaron M. Bobick said,

    The choice is probably arbitrary; she just wanted to use this style. But it’s a style that fits, no? Love lost, love gained, lost, gained… Granted she could have followed Sir Phillip’s scattered style by use of the raw emotion and “rolling hills” of passion, but she wasn’t off trying to prove anything like Sir Phillip was, by which I mean she wasn’t trying to turn formal poetry on its head or stick a fork in the Queen’s eye. She wanted simplicity, delicate expressions of longing and possession, and nothing overly complicated and contemptable like Robert’s work. More of a “for God’s sake hold your tongue and let me write” type thing minus the bells and whistles (Bells and Pomegranates?).
    I have no source for this since it’s more of a question of style/artistc preference. Is that ok?

  22. Aaron M. Bobick said,

    I know this is a bit last minute, but I was having trouble formulating some worth-while question that hadn’t already been taken. My question:
    What is the extent to which these sonnets reflected the coutship of RB and EBB?
    I know a bit about their courtship, but was never certain that these, or any other of EBB’s work, directly reflected the lusty goings-on of her and RB.

  23. Jake Burnett said,

    Theocritus of Syracuse was a mid-third century BC Greek poet who, according to Richard Hunter “bequeathed to the Western tradition the lament for the death of a pastoral poet” (vii). He is considered the father of bucolic poetry (which comes from the “Boukolika” or “ox-herding poems”). His first Idyll, “Thrysis’ Lament for Daphnis” is a poem about the death by drowning of a poet-cowherd, who resists love. The poem is considerably more sexually explicit than Barrett Browning’s own work. At one point Priapus (ancient fertility god usually represented by a carved phallus) comes to Daphnis and says:
    “‘Poor Daphnis, why are you wasting away? Your girl
    Is scouring everywhere, woodland and spring…
    Seeking you. Love is surely cruel to you, helpless man;
    Men used to call you a cowman, but now you are more like
    The goatherd, who when he sees the she-goats being
    Mounted weeps tears because he was not born a billy goat.” (82-83, 85-88)
    The bucolic Idyll sets up a conflict between sex (love) and death – at one point Daphnis even mocks Aphrodite to her face, saying, “even from Hades / Daphnis will prove to be a source of painful grief to Love” (102-3). Daphnis eventually comes to the river and drowns, saying “See how Love now drags me off to Hades.”
    While I have not read much of Theocritus’ poetry, I suspect that Idyll 1 adds considerably to the meaning of the first sonnet, and may have been the specific poem Barrett Browning was thinking of. It certainly foreshadows the conflict between love and death that is to be central to the Sonnets. I find it interesting that she has no problem conflating Theocritus’ earthy herdsman’s sexuality with Victorian sentimental love.
    As an aside, the name “Lycidas” (from Milton’s famous poem) comes from Theocritus’ Idyll 7 (Hunter vii).
    Theocritus, _Idylls_. Trans. Anthony Verity, Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002.

  24. Amanda French said,

    Hey, there is already an RSS feed button on the blog — it’s the orange one marked XML. It should work to copy the link location and subscribe to that as the RSS feed. (Although I will say it’s not completely working for me in Thunderbird.) And I don’t believe that RSS feeds allow you to look at the comments in your RSS reader: only the posts that I author will show up.

  25. Sarah Simpson said,

    Meredith asked about the relationship between love and death in the sonnets, and I’ll answer it to the best of my ability without writing an epic…As Julia Markus points out in our text’s introduction, “Death or Love was the choice Elizabeth Barrett faced in 1845” (xiii). Love, of course, was embodied by Robert Browning, and Death darkened her door as a result of heartache due to the loss of her mother and favorite brother. The death of Bro, in particular, severely weakened her will to live, and her grief “tugged her downward to the grave” (xiii). During the 5 years that led up to Browning’s first letter to her, Barrett was literally just waiting to die. But in the first Sonnet, instead of her choosing Death or Death finally choosing her, Love chooses her instead. And I see the subsequent sonnets as her attempt to accept that love, to fearlessly choose it in return. I could go on forever with my own thoughts…Love is Life, and Death is loss of Love. But Love is immortal when it is true, or when the heart that feels it is open, and Love always comes back for us in different forms, if we are patient…See, already I ramble. The Death vs. Love question has no solid answer outside certain contexts.

  26. Holly Ellern said,

    Laura, you asked about the religous life of EBB. I found a wonderful book at the NCSU library (details at the bottom of the post) that is devoted entirely to just that. EBB first received a religious education from her Christian mother and for years attended a Congregationalist church with her father. At the age of 12, she rebelled against going to church and began her own religious study of Christianity.
    Her reading was quite eclectic, including the “English divines” Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, writers she called “Greek Fathers” (Gregory Nazianzen and Chrysostom), Martin Luther (whose theology she wasn’t too fond of), and Charles Kingsley (whom she admired for his humanism, but not his socialism). As her health declined, her favorite works became those of mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, from whom she got the idea of the “luminous side of death.” In addition, she was fascinated by mesmerism and spiritualism–which were very popular in her day–and participated in seances from time to time.
    Eventually, she stopped going to church altogether. But she continued her own intensive study and devotion, reading seven chapters of the Bible each day. Her relationship with the church in general was varied. She classified herself as an “Independent” or “Dissenter” who refused to be “pinned down by the dogma of any church” (Lewis 12). She believed that most of the sacraments and rituals performed in churches lacked God’s grace, with the exception of a grain of truth here and there. She said in one of her letters: “I find it impossible to believe that God cares to what church a man belongs,” and went on to speculate whether the best Christians might be outside the churches rather than inside them. She married Browning in an Anglican church, baptized her son in a French Lutheran Church, mentions sharing communion with Presbyterian friends, and attended mass at St. Peter’s in Rome on Christmas Day.
    EBB believed that art and faith were inseparable, and made her literary life part of her religious quest. Lewis gives an outline of what she considers to be the “stages” of Browning’s religious quest. If not exactly stages, these are at least elements of EBB’s faith that were important to her.
    1. Rejection of pride and acceptance of grace
    2. Affirmation of the gospel of Suffering and the gospel of Work
    3. Rejection of a doctrine of the end of the world in favor of renovating and resurrecting the present one
    4. Ascent to divine love and truth (13)
    Overall, Browning believed that God acted directly in her life and gave or denied her things according to his will (sonnets 2 & 26). Her sonnets often mention praying (sonnet 6) about her troubles and asking for guidance. She also saw God as a loving, yet authoritative father-figure who accepted her in her weaknesses and grief (sonnet 10).
    Lewis, Linda M. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Spiritual Progress: Face to Face with God. Columbia, U of MO press, 1998. 1-15.

  27. Matt Simmons said,

    As far as EBB’s influences, I’ve done some searching about and can’t find any definitive source that says “Eliz. Barrett Browning was influenced by poets x, y, and z.” But, from reading these sonnets, I feel confidant saying–though it is a bit obvious–that she was well schooled in the sonnet tradition of Petrarch and (perhaps especially, if we look at the content of her sonnets and their sympathetic kinships) Sidney and Shakespeare. Further, her classical allusions say she knew the Greek and Latin poets. This is all pretty obvious, I know, but she was a product of her time and the nice, involved education people of her milieu recieved. So, that’s really all I’ve got.

  28. susanna branyon said,

    This is only partially related, but our discussion about EBB’s self-deprecating flavor of love brought to mind a poem by Billy Collins. Enjoy…
    You are so beautiful and I am a fool
    to be in love with you
    is a theme that keeps coming up
    in songs and poems.
    There seems to be no room for variation.
    I have never heard anyone sing
    I am so beautiful
    and you are a fool to be in love with me,
    even though this notion has surely
    crossed the minds of women and men alike.
    You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
    is another one you don’t hear.
    Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
    That one you will never hear, guaranteed.
    For no particular reason this afternoon
    I am listening to Johnny Hartman
    whose dark voice can curl around
    the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
    like no one else’s can.
    It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
    someone left burning on a baby grand piano
    around three o’clock in the morning;
    smoke that billows up into the bright lights
    while out there in the darkness
    some of the beautiful fools have gathered
    around little tables to listen,
    some with their eyes closed,
    others leaning forward into the music
    as if it were holding them up,
    or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
    slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
    Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
    borne beyond midnight,
    that has no desire to go home,
    especially now when everyone in the room
    is watching the large man with the tenor sax
    that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
    He moves forward to the edge of the stage
    and hands the instrument down to me
    and nods that I should play.
    So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
    and blow into it with all my living breath.
    We are all so foolish,
    my long bebop solo begins by saying,
    so damn foolish
    we have become beautiful without even knowing it.
    Billy Collins

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