Reading with Rose: The “Poet Laureate of Hope End”

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning might today be known to popular readers as one half of a grand literary couple. While her love story is certainly one for the ages, Barrett Browning was in her time one of the most successful and lauded poets in Europe. Her works were widely read, controversial enough to ruffle some (mostly male) feathers, and good enough to propel her name onto the lips of everyone in England as they debated who should be named the next Poet Laureate upon William Wordsworth’s death (an honor which ultimately went to Alfred, Lord Tennyson). While some still debate the various nuances of her work, upon examination we can understand why Rose Standish Nichols would have collected the works of this brilliant woman.

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The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1898.

EBB, or “Ba,” as she was called as a child, was born in 1806 in Durham, England. She would go on to have eleven younger siblings, sharing her father’s new property at Hope End with them. Both of her parents came from families who owned land and plantation in Jamaica, a fact which led EBB to believe there was a curse upon her family–a curse caused by being complicit in profiting from slavery. As such, EBB was against slavery, and was “glad” when slavery was abolished in the British colonies with the Emancipation Act of 1833. [1] Her poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” explores the themes of slavery that EBB was concerned with.

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Inscription in Rose’s edition of The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Frank [illegible] 1882.”
EBB began writing in her childhood. Her mother, who educated her, and father, who called her “the Poet Laureate of Hope End,” were her earliest supporters. She studied the typical poets of her day–Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, etc.–but was besotted with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a feminist work whose themes EBB would return to again and again in her own compositions. Today it is known that EBB spent much of her life afflicted with various illnesses; the first of these struck when she was a teenager. As a woman with limited opportunity, she continued her education on her own, culminating with the first publication of her poems in 1821. [2]

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, n.d.

By the 1830s the Barretts moved to London, where EBB met and mingled with John Kenyon, the highly successful and influential Mary Russell Mitford, and William Wordsworth. After suffering from further illnesses, EBB confined herself to her home on Wimpole Street. During her confinement she wrote and was published so prolifically that fan Edgar Allan Poe, who read her Poems published in America in 1844, dedicated  The Raven and Other Poems (1845) to EBB, “the noblest of her sex.” [3]

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Florence. Postcard from Rose Nichols Postcard Collection.
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“Villa Gamberaia Settignano Florence,” back of postcard.

Her relationship with fellow poet Robert Browning began in 1845, when Browning wrote to EBB after she expressed her admiration for his works in one of hers. They wrote to each other for months, until she finally agreed to his proposal of calling on her at Wimpole Street. After roughly 90 visits, EBB agreed to marry Browning, setting of a chain of events which led to great happiness and great sorrow. Her father, and consequently her siblings, did not approve of her marrying out of the family, cut her off from any further funding. In Italy, where EBB and Browning had made their way so that she could live in a better climate, EBB experienced four miscarriages and one successful pregnancy, giving birth to a son known as Pen. It was during these married years traveling between Rome, Paris, and London that the Brownings became part of a literary circle which consisted of many  lauded writers, including themselves. [4]

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Title page of Aurora Leigh from Rose’s edition of The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In 1856 EBB’s most enduring (and controversial) work was published: Aurora Leigh.
An epic poem written in blank verse, Aurora Leigh is arguably EBB’s most overtly feminist–and therefore controversial– work, because of its focus on the woman question and the Victorian fallen woman. Today, this work is remembered as Barrett Browning’s crowning  achievement; it is hardly a wonder that Rose Standish Nichols collected the works of this champion for female empowerment.


Notes

[1] Marjorie Stone, ‘Browning , Elizabeth Barrett (1806–1861)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

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Roses of Remembrance: Celebrating John Keats

John Keats, by Joseph Severn, 1819 - NPG 1605 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
John Keats by Joseph Severn. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

The month of February brings with it not only Valentine’s Day, but also the anniversary of the death of one of the most beloved and celebrated poets of Romanticism: John Keats. In honor of this, we will take a look at Keats’ life through one of the books in Rose’s personal collection, titled, “Roses of Romance: from the poems of John Keats.”

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The cover of Roses of Romance.

John Keats was born in October 1795 in London, England; he became the eldest of five children to Thomas and Franny Keats. From an early age, Keats appreciated literature, but he studied and earned a license in medicine in July of 1816, the month after his first published poem appeared in Examiner’s magazine. Keats befriended many of his literary idols before and during the six years he took up writing as his livelihood. While Keats’ poetry was ill-received during his lifetime; his fame and celebrated status arose during the Victorian era, thanks to the praises of such figures as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. [1]

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Illustration featured in Roses of Romance.

In 1820, Keats began to suffer episodes of blood-spitting and heart palpitations, knowing that he likely had the same tuberculosis that killed his mother, brother, and uncle, his doctor ordered him to Italy. An ill Keats left England on October 2, 1820, arrived in Naples on October 21st, and reached his final destination of Rome on November 15, 1820. Keats succumbed to his illness on February 23, 1821. He is buried at the protestant cemetery in Rome. [2]

Roses of Romance was published by Roberts Brothers in Boston in 1891. This edition of Keats poems features poems “selected and illustrated by” Edmund Henry Garrett. Garrett was a prolific illustrator of famous poems, novels, stories, and song books, creating bookplates and illustrations for works by major authors. [3]

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Illustration from Roses of Romance.

Garrett was also an artist, and his work can be seen in local institutions such as the Boston Public Library, the Winchester Public Library, and the Massachusetts State House. Thus, this book in Rose’s collection contains the work of two notable artists.

Roses of Romance features four of Keats’ most notable narrative poems, written between 1817 and 1819. La Belle Dame Sans Merci‘ is the shortest of the four poems featured in this book. ‘Lamia,’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes,’ and ‘Isabella‘ are of a length more typical of narrative poetry. All four feature Keats’ distinct poetic style.

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Roma- Piazza di Spagna. Postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection. 
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“Rome. March 7th. It was good of you to write me when you were so ill.”

As we explored in last month’s blog, Rose traveled to Italy rather frequently gathering research for her own gardens and book. These postcards above are from Rose’s astounding postcard collection. They show the Piazza di Spagna, where Keats lodged during his short stay in Italy, and a temple in Rome, the city where Keats was laid to rest. [4]

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Excerpt of a stanza from ‘Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil.’

Notes

[1] “Keats, John (1795–1821),” Kelvin Everest in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, May 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Edmund Henry Garrett.” In Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context.

[4] “Keats, John (1795–1821),” Kelvin Everest in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, May 2006.

 

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

 

Capturing the Captivating Robert Louis Stevenson

Hidden in plain sight in the halls of the Nichols House Museum is a depiction of one of Victorian literature’s most enduring authors: Robert Louis Stevenson. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ plaque of Stevenson became one of his most popular works, first modeled in 1887, with copies of it selling well after Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907. [1] In fact, the plaque was so memorable that Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create a copy that would serve as Stevenson’s memorial in Edinburgh. This plaque, completed in 1904 and residing in St. Giles Cathedral, remains the only memorial of Stevenson in his native country. The story of how Gaudens’ Robert Louis Stevenson plaque came to be echoes the travels and international friendships that Rose Nichols so appreciated.

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Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial. St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. Saint-Gaudens’ original plaque depicted Stevenson holding a cigarette in his hand. For the church memorial, Saint-Gaudens changed the cigarette to a quill. [2]
Stevenson, one of Scotland’s greatest literary treasures, belongs to an elite group of writers who can claim success beyond their own lifetimes. His writing inspired even those who seldom read to pick up his stories. One man who falls into this category is none other than “God-like sculptor” Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1905. Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire.

Saint-Gaudens had little taste in literature until his friend Mr. Wells introduced him to a work entitled “New Arabian Nights,” which “set [him] aflame as have few things in literature.” [3] He was instantly impressed, and when the opportunity presented itself for him to meet the author of these stories, he jumped at the chance. The American painter Will H. Low, a mutual friend of both Stevenson and Saint-Gaudens, arranged for the two to meet in the autumn of 1887, when Stevenson (an avid traveler) was on his way to the Adirondacks. He accepted Saint-Gaudens’ offer to “make his portrait” and first sat for the sculptor at the Hotel Albert on Eleventh Street. [4] The original portrait took five sittings which consisted of two to three hours each. Shortly after this initial meeting, however, Saint-Gaudens decided to expand the portrait to include the author’s hands. He began this expansion by using his own wife Augusta’s hands before realizing that they did not serve the task. [5]

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Self Portrait at Montigny, Will H. Low, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Arrangements were made for a second meeting between the sculptor and the author. Upon Stevenson’s move to Manasquan, New Jersey, he once again met with Saint-Gaudens to sit for his portrait. It was this sitting which gave Saint-Gaudens a lasting impression of Stevenson. Because it was decided that the author looked too stiff simply sitting in no useful occupation, Saint-Gaudens suggested he should pose in his natural state: writing. To this Stevenson not only agreed, but took the suggestion to heart by writing a letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens, Augustus’ son. [6]

Once the plaque was completed, the author and the sculptor never met in person again, but did maintain a friendship as evidenced by the exchange of several letters. Stevenson referred to Saint-Gaudens as his “God-like sculptor,” [7] and Saint-Gaudens was pleased to consider the author who captivated his literary attention a friend. After the original rectangular plaque was completed, Saint-Gaudens began casting smaller, circular editions of his work in 1898, including the one that hangs in the hallway of the Nichols House Museum, just outside the parlor—which is inscribed “To Rose Nichols,” his niece. As a tribute to the mutual friend who introduced them, the plaque features the words of Stevenson’s poem “To Will H. Low:”

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Detail of plaque including title, inscription and first stanza of “To Will H. Low”

Youth now flees on feathered foot
Faint and fainter sounds the flute,
Rarer songs of gods; and still
Somewhere on the sunny hill,
Or along the winding stream,
Through the willows, flits a dream;
Flits but shows a smiling face,
Flees but with so quaint a grace,
None can choose to stay at home,
All must follow, all must roam.

This is unborn beauty: she
Now in air floats high and free,
Takes the sun and breaks the blue;—
Late with stooping pinion flew
Raking hedgerow trees, and wet
Her wing in silver streams, and set
Shining foot on temple roof:
Now again she flies aloof,
Coasting mountain clouds and kiss’t
By the evening’s amethyst.

In wet wood and miry lane,
Still we pant and pound in vain;
Still with leaden foot we chase
Waning pinion, fainting face;
Still with gray hair we stumble on,
Till, behold, the vision gone!

Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead.
Life is over, life was gay:
We have come the primrose way.

Even though the Nichols family had their own Stevenson plaque to admire, Marian took the opportunity to visit the memorial in St. Giles- a testament to how much the family admired the work of their ‘Uncle Gus.’

“This morning we are going to St. Giles to see the Stevenson monument, and this afternoon we are to drive to Rosalyn. You remember that we couldn’t get into the Chapel before, as it was Sunday so I shall have a chance to see that.”- Marian Nichols to Arthur Nichols, August 30, 1904.

[1] Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848-1907: A Master of American Sculpture. Toulouse: Musèe des Augustins, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Saint-Gaudens, Homer. The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Vol  1. London: Andrew Melrose, 1913: 367-389.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.