One morning in her thirty-ninth year, in her father’s house where she lived as a near-invalid from a respiratory ailment that had plagued her since childhood, Elizabeth Barrett received a fan letter from a struggling poet six years her junior. "I love your poems," the missive began.
Over the next twenty months, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett exchanged 574 letters, culminating in a telegram from Robert: “I love your poems—and I love you.” The lovers had yet to meet in the flesh.
When they did, two months later, they eloped, sailing to Italy, where Barrett’s health bloomed and where they welcomed the birth of a son, whom they nicknamed Pen.
Three years into their marriage, Barrett presented Browning with a ribbon-bound packet. It was made of forty-four love poems, many written when the two had known each other through words alone.
Robert urged Elizabeth to share the poems with the world. "I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's," he later wrote.
Barrett finally agreed to publish the intensely private works, but only under the guise that she’d discovered them in a foreign tongue and rendered them into the one that she and her husband held in common.
The poems appeared in her next book, in 1850: “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white! And yet they seem alive and quivering Against my tremulous hands which loose the string And let them drop down on my knee to-night. This said,—he wished to have me in his sight Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing, Yet I wept for it!—this, . . . the paper’s light . . . Said, Dear I love thee; and I sank and quailed As if God’s future thundered on my past. This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled With lying at my heart that beat too fast. And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
Words long for flesh. The textured pages Browning impressed with his pen were folded by his hands, carried, hand by hand, to the reaching hand of his beloved. His words lived with her before he could. They lay in her lap, in her hands, against her breast. They burned and paled. Every curve of Browning’s ink was as distinctive as the shape of breath that whispered it to life.
Am I speaking from mere nostalgia when I ask what the lovers of our age will have to hold? Will a touchable screen of scrollable text suffice? Will words composed of pixels that must recombine into the next desired object, words displayed in a uniform face that may be swapped for another at will, each indistinguishable from the face of some other utterance—a slogan, say—none of them able to be traced by hand in hopes of discerning the character of the heart that wrote them, none of them able to be worn by touch: will this give an apt accounting of the love? Perhaps this is, in part, why Barrett did not want her sonnets set into type. What is lost when words cannot bear the alterations made by the passion of their use? What will love consist of when the words that compose its expression are diffused into ether?
Fifteen years after her love was made flesh by the quickening of ink, Elizabeth Barrett died, in her husband’s arms.