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THE EMBROIDERING OF POMEGRANATES

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING'S COURTSHIP
 
 

Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate', which if cut deep down the middle
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity! -
Lady Geraldine's Courtship 165-166

You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so, -
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
Pomegranate -
Aurora Leigh VI.562-565

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett in her sickroom in Wimpole Street, the learned and crippled spinster, in 1844 at the age of 38, proposed marriage in sprightly verse, that proposal being accepted in sprightly prose, the pair eloped and she later had a child, born in Italy.

The Wimpole Street sickroom was filled with books and with pictures. Elizabeth had met William Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor at dinner at John Kenyon's, 28 May 1836, having already been the great friend of Wordsworth's great friend, Sir Uvedale Price, with whom she had worked on the scansion of ancient Greek poetry. Another friend of hers, Benjamin Haydon, painted a canvas, now in the National Portrait Gallery, of William Wordsworth on Mount Helvellyn, and gave it to her. That painting by the suicide hung brooding over Elizabeth's invalid couch. It was to be left behind in England upon her departure.

Two smaller pictures were to travel with her and be placed on the Casa Guidi mantelpiece. We recall that many of Elizabeth's friends rallied to her in her illness, Miss Mitford giving her the spaniel dog Flush, who travelled with the pair through Petrarch's and Laura's Vaucluse. Another such friend, indeed suitor for Elizabeth's hand, but whom she rejected as being too much like a Hamlet gone bald, was Hengist Horne. He worked for the reform of children's working conditions and Elizabeth's poem, 'The Cry of the Children', in aid of his cause strongly and successfully influenced parliamentary legislation.

They never met, all this being carried out by correspondence through penny red stamps with the head of Queen Victorian upon them. Their next project was A New Spirit of the Age , consisting of biographies cum critical studies of the day's leading writers, both men and women. (William Hazlitt's earlier collection, The Spirit of the Age, only included men.) These studies included essays on William Wordsworth and upon the younger poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself. Most of these were prefaced with engraved portraits. Two of these Elizabeth had framed. They were of Alfred Tennyson

and Robert Browning, the engraving of Robert being based on the drawing by Comte Amedée de Ripart-Monclar in 1837, that drawing said to have been pasted inside their copy of his Paracelsus .

Later, when Robert was coming to call during their courtship, these two portraits, of Tennyson, of Browning, were turned, face to the wall. For Robert had dashed off his first love letter to her on coming home from the Continent and reading her Lady Geraldine's Courtship, published in 1844, given him by their relative, John Kenyon. Elizabeth in that poem writes in the person of the low-born poet Bertram, wooed by the wealthy and beautiful noblewoman, Lady Geraldine, in Sussex. She gives to the pair a library like her own in her Wimpole Street sickroom.

There, obedient to her praying, did I read aloud the poems
Made by Tuscan flutes, or instruments more various, of our own;
Read the pastoral parts of Spenser - or the subtle interflo
Found in Petrarch's sonnets - here's the book - the leaf is folded down!-
Or at times a modern volume, - Wordsworth's solemn-thoughted idyl,
Howitt's ballad dew, or Tennyson's enchanted reverie, -
Or from Browning some 'Pomegranate', which if cut deep down the middle
Shows a heart within blood-tinctured, of a veined humanity! -
For Robert Browning had published the first instalment of Bells and Pomegranates in 1841, his father paying their printing cost. Likewise Elizabeth's friend, Anna Jameson, had published her Loves of the Poets in two volumes which had included a chapter on Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and his sonnets in praise of Lady Geraldine. (Surrey is the next county to Sussex.) We could say the rest is history. For letters sped to and fro between the two poets, Robert and Elizabeth, filled with references to Paracelsus, the inventor of opium, to which Elizabeth was tragically addicted from her tuberculosis, to cardinals and poppies and their scarlet, and to the Bells and Pomegranates of Aaron's High Priestly garment worn in the Temple (Exodus 28.33-34,39.24-26), Elizabeth guessing, Mrs Orr confirming, Browning's partly Jewish ancestry. Elizabeth, we recall, studied not only classical Greek as a small child, but also Biblical Hebrew, seeing the craft of poetry as sacred, prophetic and priestly. She was now to turn that religious image into one also of wedded love, - for Aaron's wife was Elisheba (Exodus 6.23).

Next, as a result of these letters and the visits, during which the two portraits had their faces to the wall, Elizabeth and Robert married secretly at Marylebone Church and fled to the Continent with Lily Wilson and Flush in tow. In Paris they met up with Anna Jameson travelling with her niece Gerardine. Anna Jameson was both delighted and alarmed, delighted at seeing her written pages, The Loves of the Poets and Sacred and Legendary Art, be incarnated in flesh and blood - in Christian art the pomegranate became a symbol for the Word made flesh, the Incarnation - , and alarmed at Elizabeth's grave state of health. The menage travelled on to Pisa, after visiting Petrarch's Vaucluse. Later, Elizabeth, Robert and Wilson took up residency in Florence's Casa Guidi where, 9 March 1849, Robert Weidemann (Pen) Browning was born.

Elizabeth describes herself with her own child when her alter ego Marian Erle from Malvern with spaniel-curling hair uncovers the sleeping baby in Aurora Leigh's Sixth Book:

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna del Mare, Detail of Child with Pomegranate

I saw the whole room, I and Marian there
Alone.
Alone? She threw her bonnet off,
Then, sighing as 'twere sighing the last time,
Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:
You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so, -
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
Pomegranate -
There he lay upon his back,
The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples, - to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face . . .

Like father, like son; Pen inheriting not only his father's name but even his priestly attribute of pomegranates, evoking both Aaron and Christ, his mother being an Elizabeth to an Aaron, a Mary to a Jesus. Indeed, in Lucca Anna Jameson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have seen painting upon painting of Aaron in his High Priestly robes embroidered with pomegranates, hung about with bells, and in Florence, Botticelli's Madonna del Mare, his Madonna del Magnificat, where the Christ Child in Mary's in turn in his hands holds a pomegranate, being our Great High Priest.

One could have wished Robert Browning and Lord Leighton had seen fit to include pomegranates on Elizabeth's tomb in the Piazzale Donatello.

Instead it has the thistle, rose and shamrock of the British Isles, the lily of Florence  , the laurel of the poet's crown, and the three lyres of poetry, one with broken slave chains and roses, another with olive branches. Robert was to wed his poetry to Elizabeth's in The Ring and the Book through Castellani's lilied ring. Elizabeth had powerfully wed hers to Robert's through her embroidering of the priestly pomegranate in Lady Geraldine's Courtship and in Aurora Leigh.

September 2006: Vieri Torrigiani Malaspina planted pomegranates by the tombs of our three poets, EBB, Walter Savage Landor and Arthur Hugh Clough, his Giardino Torrigiani in Florence having supplied many of the nineteenth-century plants to the 'English' Cemetery.

The essay is accompanied by copies of the pictures in Elizabeth's room given to Casa Guidi in Florence and by a copy of the Botticelli Madonna del Mare, a copy of Botticelli's Madonna del Magnificat, likewise painted in Florence with the pomegranate, having been given to the Armstrong Browning Library.

Abstract
Elizabeth Barrett Browning twice significantly used the image of pomegranates, the first in Lady Geraldine's Courtship in reference to Robert Browning's poetry, and this became her marriage proposal to him, the second, in Aurora Leigh, when writing of their child, Robert Weidemann 'Pen' Browning. In so doing she evokes Exodus on the bells and pomegranates of Aaron's priestly robe and the name of his wife, Elisheba. Besides texts, Elizabeth's courtship also made use of images, Hengist Horne's engravings of Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning for A New Spirit of the Age, which she had framed in her room, and Anna Jameson's essays of The Loves of the Poets and her other books on art.

Vita
Julia Bolton Holloway, Custodian of the Swiss-owned 'English Cemetery', Piazzale Donatello (where Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walter Savage Landor, Isa Blagden, Arthur Hugh Clough, Fanny and Theodosia Trollope, Hiram Powers and Fanny Holman Hunt are buried), earned her PhD from Berkeley, taught Medieval Studies at Quincy, Princeton and Boulder, and edited Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, for Penguin Classics.
 


 

FLORIN WEBSITE © JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAYAUREO ANELLO ASSOCIAZIONE, 1997-2017: MEDIEVAL: BRUNETTO LATINO, DANTE ALIGHIERI, SWEET NEW STYLE: BRUNETTO LATINO, DANTE ALIGHIERI, & GEOFFREY CHAUCER || VICTORIAN: WHITE SILENCE: FLORENCE'S 'ENGLISH' CEMETERY || ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING || WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR || FRANCES TROLLOPE || || HIRAM POWERS || ABOLITION OF SLAVERY || FLORENCE IN SEPIA  || CITY AND BOOK CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII || MEDIATHECA 'FIORETTA MAZZEI' || EDITRICE AUREO ANELLO CATALOGUE || FLORIN WEBSITE || UMILTA WEBSITE || RINGOFGOLD WEBSITE || LINGUE/LANGUAGES: ITALIANO, ENGLISH || VITA
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