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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner

Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 1, March 2017
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Janet Lynn Davis
Grimes County, Texas, USA


All Things Browning

God's in His heaven—All's right with the world! [1]

            —Robert Browning

"Would you also like to see the balcony on the third floor?" a library attendant asks me. "We keep the door locked, but I can open it for you. The view is lovely."

For two years as a college student, I lived across the street from this lavish Italian Renaissance-style building. Yet until now, decades later, I'd never actually explored inside these walls, nor outside them either. I'd only attended a ceremony or two—in then out, no time for more. Today, Pippa, the bronze statue surrounded by greenery at the front of the long, manicured lawn, comes to life for me . . . drawing me in.

As I step gently through a network of grand rooms in the Armstrong Browning Library (which is both research center and museum), I have trouble deciding where to fix my gaze. Greeting me first: rich-wood paneling, towering marble columns, ornate ceilings, a polished tile floor with a brass-inlaid border. The tranquil countenance of a young man seated at the front desk. Then book after antique book lining shelf after shelf. A multitude of stained-glass windows, sunlit and vivid, almost all of them illustrating poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Personal furniture. Busts and other sculptures, miscellaneous works of era-appropriate art. And several Browning portraits, with faces that seem to stare pensively at me.

can an artist
capture on canvas
the essence
of a master of words?
this son they called Pen

Many delicate pieces of memorabilia gracefully rest in glass cases. (Not to mention that the library also maintains a vast-and-growing collection of letters and manuscripts.) I realize I could study every trinket and silver spoon, every brooch and snippet of lace, for more time than I have—as well as lose myself in the notes that accompany them. A small traveling tea set, with basket, particularly captures my attention. The story goes that the set belonged to a Mrs. Jean Sherwood, an American art critic, who used it to share tea with a stranger one day while on a train journey in Italy. During their conversation, Mrs. Sherwood remarked that in America Elizabeth Barrett Browning was considered to be the greatest woman poet. The stranger responded, "She was my wife."

this wisp of hair
held tight in the embrace
of a locket . . .
how certain small things
don't harden with age

her inkstand
made of fine porcelain . . .
a chorus
of syllables
spilling onto paper

even leaves
from the laurel wreath
on his casket
saved, arranged in a frame . . .
still a cascade of life

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways [. . .]
I shall but love thee better after death. [2]

          —Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Author's Notes:

[1] From "Pippa's Song," lines 7-8, in Pippa Passing, a dramatic poem/play by Robert Browning (1841).

[2] From "Sonnets from the Portuguese 43," first and last lines, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850).

Inspiration and information for "All Things Browning" came primarily from an in-person visit to The Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, Waco, Texas; the library's website and the librarian/curator of books and printed materials also served as resources. The facility, which opened in 1951, "houses the world's largest collection of Browning material and other fine collections of rare 19th-century books, manuscripts, and works of art" (as stated on the website).

The life-size statue of Pippa, presented to the library in 1957, was sculpted by Waldine Tauch.

Sculptor/painter Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, or "Pen," was the Browning poets' only child. Several portraits he painted of his parents are displayed at the library.

Elizabeth (1806-1861) is buried at the English Cemetery, Florence, Italy, while Robert (1812-1889) is buried in Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey.

On a personal note, the author was surprised to discover, not long ago, an additional Browning "connection." Not only did she live as a student across the street from the Armstrong Browning Library, but she also attended a middle school barely more than steps from London's St. Marylebone Parish Church, where the Brownings married in 1846.

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