Reflections on The Poet’s Vow by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Essay by Mark A Y Nuñez
During the course of settling the estate of my deceased parents I received back a volume of poetry that I had given to my sister. She said that she did not read poetry much anymore. Being alone in the empty home of my parents I started reading. I read The Seraphim and then The Poet’s Vow. It was a strange experience. I felt that I was reading the poetry for the first time and yet at a point I noticed that there seemed to be familiarity. I felt at home with the poetry much as I felt at home in the empty house that I had not visited for years. Then it occurred to me that I had read the first poems in the book before giving it as a Christmas gift so long ago to my sister.
I was amazed at how powerful of a poem The Poet’s Vow is. It had a very powerful effect on me. I pondered on the reasons why. I couldn’t help but think that the poet in the story was the opposite of myself. In the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet is so incensed by the moral weaknesses of his fellow human beings that he makes a vow to live alone and have no contact with any of his fellow humanity thereby purging himself of being soiled by their spiritual shortcomings. I, myself, have always tried to embrace humanity. The balance of trying to be a positive influence in people’s lives while not allowing people to have a corruptive influence on me has been my life’s challenge.
I am certainly writing this essay with the influence of events and my reflections about them that are current in my life and what I am observing in the world now. Not the least of these reflections has to do with interacting with my brothers, sisters and extended family during the course of selling this house and settling the inheritance. What this has to do with The Poet’s Vow is about interactions with people. Then in the time of Mrs. Browning as now at the beginning of this 21st century the moral and poetic principles are the same.
I observed after reading this powerful and sadly beautiful poem that Elizabeth’s poetic work gets much of its power from Christian religious references such as mention of God and angels. These religious influences of course are still with us today from our European heritage even here in America. I thought that in Elizabeth’s time this was the only avenue of spirituality that was open to her to use in her work. She may have gone against the grain in a sense by being a woman poet in a time when men had careers and women supported them in their careers. To this day however in our modern times when I had mentioned Elizabeth Barrett Browning to men they snidely made reference to her poem, How Do I Love Thee, as if to dismiss women poets as inferior. However in spite of going against the grain in that sense she seems to be very traditional for her times and not a counter cultural person. However putting the strong Christianity aside I simply can enjoy her work with the sense of universality to spirituality that is common to all peoples in all times. Her work would not be so powerful without the references to the absolutes of spirituality.
It was fascinating that the theme of the bond between a man and a woman as absolute was more meaningful to me because of being from a woman’s perspective. This negated any thought of the writing being like a sexist man using religion as a tool for keeping a woman in bondage to a man. It spoke more of the universality of the strong emotional ties in romance that become rooted deep in the psychology of a person. The fact that Elizabeth chose to use death as the absolute that would clearly show how powerful a force the love between a man and woman can be is what gives this poem so much emotional impact.
Once again when it comes to romance I seem to be the opposite of the poet in the story. I have declared my love to more than one lady but the circumstances of my life were not conducive to developing a lasting love relationship. The rivalries and jealousies among the ladies only contributed to the problems. The Poet’s Vow however makes me think of the hearts I broke along the way without intending to do so. It is definitely a reminder of the intense pain a human can feel when there appears to be a bond growing between a man and woman.
In the end The Poet’s Vow impressed on me how beautiful and awesome in her power as a poetess that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work is to this day. The universality of the themes about people needing people and the powerful bond between a man and woman transcend any differences in times and cultures. Credit has to be given to the poetess for her ability to make us reflect on the experiences of our own lives and bring out our emotions and thoughts concerning romance. Perhaps I am not in a stately mansion like the Hall of Courland, like the poet in the story but in this empty home where the clouds from the sea speed overhead to the inland areas the absolutes of the power of Nature make the experience of reading this poem even more meaningful.