Sunday, May 31, 2009

Like A Rhythmic Fate Sublime

In the final stanza of the prologue to the Rhyme of the Dutchess May, Elizabeth Barrett Browning explains exactly what she is doing with the rhymic interlude in the midst of each stanza. This is a longish poem, and the short line, "Toll slowly," disrupts the otherwise standard rhythm of all 112 verses.

The scene is that she is reading a very sad tale, a tale of death, in a churchyard, while the church bell continuously tolls for a funeral. As Browning explains in the prologue, "The solemn knell fell in with the tale of life and sin, like a rhythmic fate sublime."

So, as we read the whole poem, and as we continually hear the words "Toll slowly" in the middle of each stanza, we hear the tolling of the funeral bell. The funeral sounds permeate the poem, "like a rhythmic fate sublime."

The Cambridge Edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems contains the following note right before the poem: "Despite the irritating iteration of the refrain Toll slowly--which most people omit in reading--the 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' has generally been accounted much the best of Mrs. Browning's longer ballads." Iritating iteration? Yes! But it is meant to be irritating, it is the constant breaking in of death on our thoughts as we read, it is death refusing to be ignored. It is the tolling of the inevitable toward which the poem is rushing us. Thus the word "slowly" doesn't only describe the bell, it pleads with it: "Please toll slowly, don't rush us to the funeral." The words must not be omitted. Or at the very least they could perhaps be replaced with the slow tolling of a churchbell. But that would be quite as irritating.

I will post only the prologue, though the whole poem is intensely beautiful.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

To the belfry, one by one, went the ringers from the sun,
Toll slowly,
And the oldest ringer said, 'Ours is music for the dead
When the rebecks are all done.'

Six abeles i' the chruchyard grow on the north side in a row,
Toll slowly,
And the shadows of their tops rock across the little slopes
Of the grassy graves below.

On the south side and the west a small river runs in haste,
Toll slowly,
And, between the river flowing and the fair green trees a-growing,
Do the dead lie at their rest.

On the east I sate that day, up against a willow gray:
Toll slowly,
Through the rain of willow-branches I could see the low hill-ranges
And the river on its way.

There I sate beneath that tree, and the bell tolled solemnly,
Toll slowly,
While the trees' and river's voices flowed between the solemn noises,--
Yet death seemed more loud to me.

There I read this ancient rhyme while the bell did all the time
Toll slowly,
And the solemn knell fell in with the tale of life and sin,
Like a rhythmic fate sublime.


John W. May said...

Those two last lines are amazing. It does seem the poet's intention was to have us pulled into the scene of an ancient churchyard where the funeral bell was constantly calling, constantly reminding us of that inevitable fate. I like that Browning tells how it even consumed her thoughts: "Yet death seemed more loud to me" ...

Great read. Thank you for the post.

John W. May said...

You seem to know a lot about this particular poet. She's definately one of my favorite female poets.

In fact, I like her so much that she's the only one whose works I have downloaded to my palm pilot!

Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, John, I know rather a lot about the wife who overshadows Robert Browning. But what I know only serves to raise many, many more questions that I would like answers to. Some of them may eventually be answered, most will not, at least until I can ask her in person.

But the main goal (for me) is never to know a lot about a poet; it is only to know what I need to gain enjoyment of the poems.

The poetry itself must speak, but sometimes a little biography of the author helps us in translation. Often it does. Especially with special cases such as Christina Rossetti. Or William Cowper. Or Charles Williams.

But my interest (it is not the only worthwhile interest, but it is the only interest I have) is to know enough about the poet to put a context around the sounds that I hear in the poem.

However, I confess, the better-than-fiction love story of Robert and Elizabeth Browning has captured my interest more than I would have expected. It has all the elements: impossibility, illness, unexpected adoration, a hostile father, impending old age, public proclamation, glorious public visibility of an impossible and forbidden love, escape, and a happily-ever-after. It is better than fiction could have devised!

HOWEVER, most of my adoration of EBB is in her being a role model and friend to Christina Georgina Rossetti. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a glory in her own right. But her mentorship of a young poet who would eventually overshadow her as much as she overshadowed her husband holds my attention.

And this all reminds me, I must sometime post something from her husband, for Robert Browning was a great poet, blessed to be the husband of Elizabeth, and cursed (as far as eternal fame is concerned) to publish contemporaneously with her. But I think he knew what he was giving up when he wooed the greatest poet of his generation.