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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 2, June 2017
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Janet Lynn Davis
Grimes County, Texas, USA


Clouds

I would build a cloudy House
For my thoughts to live in,
When for earth too fancy-loose,
And too low for Heaven. [1]

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If I didn't know better, Elizabeth, I'd say you were haunting me. It all may have started just down the street from a school I attended—at the St. Marylebone Parish Church, where you and your dear Robert secretly married (though I was ignorant of that fact until only recently). I passed by a few hundred times as a youth, never stepping foot inside. Then five years later, and more than an ocean away, I came to live in a college dormitory building that to this day faces a world-renowned library dedicated to you and Robert. So close to you again, yet I continued to be deaf to your presence.

How the decades have turned to vapor. Now, I find myself back in London, roaming the streets as if lured from place to place by your hand, soft and warm. Yesterday, to the National Portrait Gallery and its famous likenesses of the two of you. And this afternoon to this church at Marylebone Road. As soon as I slip in, I notice the plain, dark door labeled "The Browning Room." Ah! It's locked, but I hope you'll give me credit for vigorously rattling the knob. At least I manage to snap a photograph of the heart of the church—from pews to pulpit and grand ceiling—generating stares from a handful of workers before I dash back out.

some have said
cameras steal souls . . .
with this one shot
all I wish to capture
is the splendor within

In search of another wispy trace of you, I next make my way down a section of the High Street and onto quiet blocks known for their opulent, historical residences and medical establishments. My silent gasp as I eventually come upon that famous address where you spent the last eight years of your life before you eloped. Etched quite simply, near ground level, into the building's stone facade: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning . . . Lived in a house on this site." I imagine you, fragile in constitution but your pen bold and strong, crafting your words in a way thought somewhat uncharacteristic for a woman of your time.

a sign
at 50 Wimpole Street,
once the home
of a beloved poet:
The Heart Hospital

Finally, I wind my way through an overly crowded commercial district to Trafalgar Square and then to Westminster Abbey with its numerous pointed arches and sky-piercing Gothic spires. Here, your husband lies buried in the company of other notables, though far away from your own resting place at The English Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I bid adieu to you and yours, Elizabeth . . . but surely only for now.

evensong—
a hush of humanity
as the sun
slowly lowers itself
to a choral introit


Author's Notes:

[1] From "The House of Clouds," lines 1–4, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1841). The first-published version (in Athenaeum) is used here; in subsequently published versions, the punctuation is different.

The wording soft and warm is from "Sonnets from the Portuguese 24," line 3 ("In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm"), by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850).

The St. Marylebone Parish Church, which has been associated with a great deal of history, was established "sometime after 1086" (per the church's website). The basic structure of the present-day parish church was completed in 1817. Various well-known individuals have attended the church, including Charles Dickens and his son. The Brownings were married there in 1846.

A round commemorative plaque (first installed in 1899), too small and located too high for the narrator to read in person, is affixed to the building at 50 Wimpole Street. Its interesting wording: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poetess, Afterwards Wife of Robert Browning, Lived Here, 1838–1846."

The poet's Georgian Wimpole Street house, which she shared with Barrett family members, was likely torn down in 1935 (sources vary on the date). Curiously, the current structure at that location is associated with a major heart center.

Elizabeth was a semi-invalid for much of her life, apparently suffering from a collection of maladies (the exact set of illnesses is open to debate). Also, it is said she was prescribed opiates, to which she became addicted.

Coincidentally (unknown to the author until she had completed this story), a legend exists that the ghost of Elizabeth haunts the Armstrong Browning Library in Waco, Texas. Also refer to the tanka prose piece "All Things Browning," Haibun Today, 11:1.

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