Monday, September 29, 2014

Piece de resistance

When I was acting recently in the play, Hamp, I used an old book of poems by Robert Browning as my character's 'prayer book.' (I played a military padre.) I looked at the poems in odd moments during rehearsals: they were laid out in two columns per page, dense and in smallish print, and there were pages and pages of them. Perhaps a couple of hundred pages. Some of them were Browning's long dramatic poems which I think were intended for stage performance.

I'm not sure whether it was as a result of this that I looked a bit further into the poems written by Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like her husband's poems, these seemed to me to have a kind of dated air about them, though some of them are still highly regarded.

Recently my son alerted me to the book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, and I read it - very quickly, because it has one basic point and that's repeated in a variety of ways. But essentially it's about the need for artists to overcome the resistance to doing creative work; procrastination is a great bugbear for many artistic workers, and can excused on the grounds of 'writer's block' or other pseudonyms.

Shortly after this I began reading Margaret Forster's excellent and detailed biography of Elizabeth Barrett. It's long and there have been times I've been tempted to give up on it, but it's so well written that it's quite hard to put it down. Barrett suffered ill-health during much of her youth and early womanhood; possibly it was a major bronchial issue that was never properly dealt with. She traded on it to a degree, making herself something of a recluse in her own household, and excusing herself from going out because she was too 'frail' to exercise (the frailty was encouraged by her doctors, regrettably). It became a bit of a vicious circle, aided by her own father overdoing his concerns for her, and allowing her to keep herself from other people.

But Barrett also used this time to establish herself as a poet, and to learn, and to communicate (mostly by letter) with other writers. She published some poetry and made a small name for herself. This style of life continued well into her thirties and then her life changed substantially. By this time her mother had died suddenly and at least two of her brothers had also died, and her father's personality had become increasingly possessive of his remaining children. He refused to allow any of them to marry - though in due course some managed to.

Elizabeth began a correspondence with Robert Browning, and began to meet him secretly at her home when her father was out. (Browning never met his father-in-law man face-to-face, amazingly.) In due course they made plans to be married, secretly, and after the marriage fled the country, going to Italy, where the climate was much more congenial to Elizabeth's health.

At this point, things on the poetry front became most odd. Here were two major poets living together with plenty of time on their hands in a country where they knew very few people, and where they had little in the way of domestic duties to contend with, yet they spent the first decade or more of their marriage barely writing a word of poetry! It seems extraordinary; they made excuses about one thing or another putting them off from working, and at times did make efforts to work, but very little was produced.

Browning had never had a real job in his life - his parents had subsidised him at home in London; Barrett, of course, being a woman in a well-to-do family, had never been required to work either. She had almost no domestic skills (Browning wasn't much better) and relied almost entirely on a long-suffering personal maid (who eventually also became the nanny to the Brownings' one and only child) to look after their every need. Their life-style was funded by some ongoing payments Elizabeth received in relation to a ship an uncle owned, and small amounts from their books, and an annual sum paid to them by a friend.

There was every opportunity to produce great poetry during this time, and yet both of them fell into the trap that Pressfield talks about. They put off the work continually, in spite of having no excuses for not working. Even when their one and only child came along, they were still molly-coddled in terms of actually looking after the child's physical needs: first a wet-nurse suckled the boy until he was well into his second year, and the maid, Wilson, basically cared for him in the day-to-day. Worse, Elizabeth was excessively indulgent of the boy, and even Robert regarded her mothering of him as most peculiar.

The moral of the story? If you have talent, don't waste it by procrastinating. You only have so long on this planet. Make the most of what you've given and use it.

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