Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University recently made one of its rarest discoveries: a notebook written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that contains the earliest known draft manuscript of “Sonnet Five” from her best-known work, Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Owned and composed by the famed poet circa 1839-1846 – during her courtship with Robert Browning – the notebook was transcribed by library director Rita S. Patteson. Tiny, spider-like handwriting on the title page calls out to the reader from across two centuries: “MSS. by Elizabeth B. Barrett.” In the notebook’s 100-plus pages, Elizabeth’s script reveals numerous works in draft form, including three previously unpublished poems, “The Gorse,” “The Repose,” and “An Ode to America.”
On the notebook’s final leaf, stanzas thought originally to be the conclusion of “An Ode to America” were discovered to be substantially different from the ode’s early stanzas and, in fact, proved to be a draft of one of Barrett Browning’s famous sonnets, “Sonnet Five.” Patteson’s honed skill at deciphering the 170-year-old handwriting was put to full use. This early draft of “Sonnet Five,” with words crossed out and rewritten, reveals how the sonnet began to take shape before it took its ultimate published form:
I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,… those laurels on thine head,
O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.
Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor is a gem of a facility holding the world’s largest collection of material related to both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Each year, the library holds its Browning celebration, coinciding with the anniversary of Robert’s birth date of May 7. The 2010
Browning Festival May 6-8 will draw scholars and other lovers of Browning poetry from around the world.