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Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: September 05, 2006 10:33AM

It is reported that an editor (Thackery) declined to publish Elizabeth Browning's poem below on moral grounds, claiming readers would object to the 'unlawful passion' of a man for a woman therein portrayed. I am not altogether convinced that was EBB's message, and others may interpret matters differently. Embedded notes are often distracting, so I will leave my comments, um, at her bottom. A number of possibly unfamiliar words: kraken = sea monster, mulct = penalty/fine, limes = linden trees. I read the rhythm as hexameter, with a mixture of anapestic and iambic feet. If someone discovers it is actually an obscure Greek form, I am happy to be enlightened.

'But where do you go?' said the lady, while both sat under the yew,
And her eyes were alive in their depth, as the kraken beneath the sea-blue.

'Because I fear you,' he answered;--'because you are far too fair,
And able to strangle my soul in a mesh of your gold-coloured hair.'

'Oh that,' she said, 'is no reason! Such knots are quickly undone,
And too much beauty, I reckon, is nothing but too much sun.'

'Yet farewell so,' he answered; --'the sunstroke's fatal at times.
I value your husband, Lord Walter, whose gallop rings still from the limes.

'Oh that,' she said, 'is no reason. You smell a rose through a fence:
If two should smell it what matter? who grumbles, and where's the pretense?

'But I,' he replied, 'have promised another, when love was free,
To love her alone, alone, who alone from afar loves me.'

'Why, that,' she said, 'is no reason. Love's always free I am told.
Will you vow to be safe from the headache on Tuesday, and think it will hold?

'But you,' he replied, 'have a daughter, a young child, who was laid
In your lap to be pure; so I leave you: the angels would make me afraid."

'Oh that,' she said, 'is no reason. The angels keep out of the way;
And Dora, the child, observes nothing, although you should please me and stay.'

At which he rose up in his anger,--'Why now, you no longer are fair!
Why, now, you no longer are fatal, but ugly and hateful, I swear.'

At which she laughed out in her scorn: 'These men! Oh these men overnice,
Who are shocked if a colour not virtuous is frankly put on by a vice.'

Her eyes blazed upon him--'And you! You bring us your vices so near
That we smell them! You think in our presence a thought 'twould defame us to hear!

'What reason had you, and what right,--I appeal to your soul from my life,--
To find me so fair as a woman? Why, sir, I am pure, and a wife.

'Is the day-star too fair up above you? It burns you not. Dare you imply
I brushed you more close than the star does, when Walter had set me as high?

'If a man finds a woman too fair, he means simply adapted too much
To use unlawful and fatal. The praise! --shall I thank you for such?

'Too fair?--not unless you misuse us! and surely if, once in a while,
You attain to it, straightaway you call us no longer too fair, but too vile.

'A moment,--I pray your attention!--I have a poor word in my head
I must utter, though womanly custom would set it down better unsaid.

'You grew, sir, pale to impertinence, once when I showed you a ring.
You kissed my fan when I dropped it. No matter! I've broken the thing.

'You did me the honour, perhaps, to be moved at my side now and then
In the senses--a vice, I have heard, which is common to beasts and some men.

'Love's a virtue for heroes!--as white as the snow on high hills,
And immortal as every great soul is that struggles, endures, and fulfills.

'I love my Walter profoundly,--you, Maude, though you faltered a week,
For the sake of . . . what is it--an eyebrow? or, less still, a mole on the cheek?

'And since, when all's said, you're too noble to stoop to the frivolous cant
About crimes irresistible, virtues that swindle, betray and supplant.

'I determined to prove to yourself that, whate'er you might dream or avow
By illusion, you wanted precisely no more of me than you have now.

'There! Look me full in the face!--in the face. Understand, if you can,
That the eyes of such women as I am are clean as the palm of a man.

'Drop his hand, you insult him. Avoid us for fear we should cost you a scar--
You take us for harlots, I tell you, and not for the women we are.

'You wronged me: but then I considered . . . there's Walter! And so at the end
I vowed that he should not be mulcted, by me, in the hand of a friend.

'Have I hurt you indeed? We are quits then. Nay, friend of my Walter, be mine!
Come, Dora, my darling, my angel, and help me to ask him to dine.'

Ok, Lord Walter has just galloped off, and his wife and good friend remain chatting in the garden. The friend is about to take his leave and Wally's wife asks the reason for the sudden departure. The first question that comes to mind is whether his anticipated exit is real or disingenuous - is he merely flirting with the wife, and hoping to be invited to stay and sample her charms, that is.

He says he is leaving because she is too beautiful, and he is entirely too attracted to her to trust himself long in her presence. She scoffs at such feelings, but does she do so in an effort to entice him to stay (while offering her goodies), or does she suggest they can still be friends, while promising nothing more than that? Smelling a rose through a fence is far removed from poking one's proboscis into its petals, I would opine.

The visitor (is his last name Maude, or is Maude his paramour? The latter, I suspect.) then takes offense, shouting that he now finds the lady no longer attractive, but 'ugly and hateful'. She launches herself into a tirade for the rest of the couplets, but ends up asking her daughter Dora to aid her in getting him to stay for dinner.

So, I am left musing whether the lady intends to seduce the visitor, or is in fact a faithful wife, simply claiming equal rights for women with men.

Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: September 05, 2006 02:15PM

Seems to me, Hugh that the melodrama which this poem is tells of a pretty straight forward offer to stay by the lady. In my mind it only turns promiscuous here:

'Have I hurt you indeed? We are quits then. Nay, friend of my Walter, be mine!
Come, Dora, my darling, my angel, and help me to ask him to dine.'

I can see where a married woman to ask a married man to "be mine" seemed to be too crass for the tastes of Victorian editors.


Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 09/05/2006 02:58PM by lg.

Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: September 05, 2006 02:36PM

In a bit of Victorian fashion
Mr Thackery he was frowning
and the heat of unlawful passion
caused his edges a bit of browning

Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: Pam Adams (192.168.128.---)
Date: October 20, 2006 01:57PM

She's certainly inviting him to stay- whether just to flirt, or to read selections from The Pearl, who knows?

Did you notice the 'strangling with the hair?' Looks like she was reading her husband's work.

I liked the bit about it's being unpublishable- probably because a woman was doing the seducing, not the man.


Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: Elliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 26, 2006 11:36PM

Chit chat. It just doesn't do it for me. Who is that "classic" author... Henry James... one of his novels... "(Something) Dove"... I start reading chit chat and my cereberum shuts down; an alergy perhaps...

As Haldorn Flamergushen (1818) wrote,

Intellectualizations to be sure,
Pointess chatter makes mine blood run colder;
Conjures the analogy of manure,
For Art... in the mind of the beholder.


Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: JosephT (192.168.128.---)
Date: November 27, 2006 07:50PM

I think she has no intention of seducing him. Rather, she is exercising her intellectual and feminine powers to outwit and frustrate her husband's friend. These powers were greatly suppressed in women by Victorian society. There is a great store of literature written by Victorian women that addresses the topic straight-on and, as with this, very little of it got published in its day. Perhaps the best example is "Cassandra" by Florence Nightingale....yes, THAT Florence Nightingale...who was not only an heroic, trail-blazing nurse, but a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool feminist who had much to say about the diminished role of women and the role of the family in keeping women servile. An example from "Cassandra:"

The family? It is too narrow a field for the development of an immortal spirit, be that spirit male or female. The family uses people, not for what they are, not for what they are intended to be, but for what it wants for - its own uses. It thinks of them not as what God has made them, but as the something which it has arranged that they shall be. This system dooms some minds to incurable infancy, others to silent misery.

The silent misery of which she speaks is that suffered primarily by women in their subservient position to Victorian men.

So there you have it...Wally's wife is a feminist just showing off her superiority to her husband's friend. Of course, she could also be horny at the same time.

Edited 5 time(s). Last edit at 11/28/2006 06:17AM by JosephT.

Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: petersz (69.181.22.---)
Date: November 17, 2008 10:48PM

I miss you, Hugh.

Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: misterF (91.109.203.---)
Date: November 18, 2008 09:39AM

Yup, we all miss Hugh, curmudgeon though he was.


Re: Lord Walter's Wife - EBB
Posted by: eness (114.143.37.---)
Date: December 21, 2008 11:31PM

I learnt a lot on this board thrashing out subjects like scansion with Hugh Clary (Thanks Mr. HC). and I remember a very interesting discussion on emotional sense of syllables. This board has seen lot interesting stuff. I am glad it is functional again.

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