Table of contents

1. Confessions

Face to face in my chamber, my silent chamber, I saw her.
God and she and I only, . . there, I sate1 down to draw her
Soul through the clefts of confession. . . Speak, I am holding thee fast,
As the angels of resurrection shall do it at the last.
“My cup is blood-red
With my sin,” she said,
“And I pour it out to the bitter lees,
As if the angels of judgment stood over me strong at the last,
Or as thou wert as these!”
When God smote His hands together, and struck out thy soul as a spark
Into the organised glory of things, from deeps of the dark,--
Say, didst thou shine, didst thou burn, didst thou honor the power in the form,
As the star does at night, or the fire-fly, or even the little ground-worm?
“I have sinned,” she said,
“For my seed-light shed
Has smouldered away from His first decrees!
The cypress praiseth the fire-fly, the ground-leaf praiseth the worm,--
I am viler than these!”
When God on that sin had pity, and did not trample thee straight
With His wild rains beating and drenching thy light found inadequate;
When He only sent thee the north-winds, a little searching and chill,
To quicken thy flame . . didst thou kindle and flash to the heights of His will?
“I have sinned,” she said,
“Unquickened, unspread
My fire dropt down, and I wept on my knees!
I only said of His winds of the north as I shrank from their chill, . .
What delight is in these?”
When God on that sin had pity, and did not meet it as such,
But tempered the wind to thy uses, and softened the world to thy touch,
At least thou wast moved in thy soul, though unable to prove it afar,
Thou couldst carry thy light like a jewel, not giving it out like a star?2
“I have sinned,” she said,
“And not merited
The gift He gives, by the grace He sees!
The mine-cave praiseth the jewel, the hill-side praiseth the star;
I am viler than these.”
Then I cried aloud in my passion, . . Unthankful and impotent creature,
To throw up thy scorn unto God through the rents in thy beggarly nature!
If He, the all-giving and loving, is served so unduly, what then
Hast thou done to the weak and the false, and the changing, . .thy fellows of men?
“I have loved,” she said,
(Words bowing her head
As the wind the wet acacia-trees!)
“I saw God sitting above me,-- but I . . I sate among men,
And I have loved these.”
Again with a lifted voice, like a choral trumpet that takes
The lowest note of a viol3 that trembles, and triumphing breaks
On the air with it solemn and clear,--“Behold! I have sinned not in this!
Where I loved, I have loved much and well,--I have verily loved not amiss.
Let the living,” she said,
“Enquire of the Dead,
In the house of the pale-fronted Images:
My own true dead will answer for me, that I have not loved amiss
In my love for all these.
“The least touch of their hands in the morning, I keep it by day and by night.
Their least step on the stair, at the door, still throbs through me, if ever so light.
Their least gift, which they left to my childhood, far off, in the long-ago years,
Is now turned from a toy to a relic,4 and seen through the crystals of tears.
Dig the snow,”she said,
“For my churchyard bed,
Yet I, as I sleep, shall not fear to freeze,
If one only of these my beloveds, shall love me with heart-warm tears,
As I have loved these!
“If I angered any among them, from thenceforth my own life was sore.
If I fell by chance from their presence, I clung to their memory more.
Their tender I often felt holy, their bitter I sometimes called sweet;
And whenever their heart has refused me, I fell down straight at their feet.
I have loved,” she said,--
“Man is weak, God is dread,
Yet the weak man dies with his spirit at ease,
Having poured such an unguent of love but once on the Saviour’s feet,5
As I lavished for these.”
Go, I cried, thou hast chosen the Human, and left the Divine!
Then, at least, have the Human shared with thee their wild berry-wine?
Have they loved back thy love, and when strangers approached thee with blame,
Have they covered thy fault with their kisses, and loved thee the same?
But she shrunk and said,
“God, over my head,
Must sweep in the wrath of his judgment seas,
If He shall deal with me sinning, but only indeed the same
And no gentler than these.”

2. Note on the text

“Confessions,” the Victorian poet and essayist Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925) said, “seems to me one of the stormiest and most pathetic poems in the language” (232). If one interprets the accusatory priestly confessor of the poem as one voice in a psychomachia, or war within the self, “Confessions” is also a striking example of what the poet Matthew Arnold (1822-88) described as the “dialogue of the mind with itself” in Victorian poetry, or, more generally, of the Victorian “double poem,” to use Isobel Armstrong’s influential term (Armstrong [1993], 13). Although “Confessions” is not clearly a dramatic monologue, the poem’s conflicted speaker, its mirror images, and its confessional motif recur in later Victorian examples of the form such as D.G. Rossetti’s “A Last Confession” (1849, 1869-70) and Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway” (1870). The principal conflict turns on the tension between human and divine love, a recurring theme in EBB’s poetry. Manuscript evidence associates “Confessions” with the courtship period, when EBB experienced this conflict directly and personally with a new intensity, eventually resolving it by turning away from concentration on heaven and the afterlife to embrace the prospect of love on earth reflected in Sonnets from the Portuguese. In “Confessions,” however, the conflict between human and divine love is less clearly resolved. In his 1851 review of the poetry by both the Brownings, the author and critic Charles Kingsley (1819-75) singled out “Confessions” as “perhaps the highest flight of her Muse” because “the thoroughly human plot is just what enables her to go down into the depths and rise to the heights of the truly Divine.” At the same time, he commented on “defects of metre and of rhyme.” a1 Kingsley evidently overlooked how the unusually variable rhythm registers at the formal level of warring meters the psychic conflict that “Confessions” represents. Nevertheless, between 1850 and 1856, perhaps in response to his critique, EBB made numerous revisions in wording; in many, though not all, of these cases, she added extra words that seemed designed to regularize the meter. For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 2, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson, Volume Editors Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

sate sat.

giving it out like a star? Cf. RB’s poetic tribute to EBB, “My Star” (1855) and the “Introduction” (p. **).

lowest note of a viol Cf. Sonnets from the Portuguese XXXII, where EBB associates her own sorrowful condition with a viol.

relic often refers to an object of religious veneration, especially to the remains of a saint.

alludes to Mary Magdalene (Luke 7.37-48), the prostitute forgiven by Christ after she washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with “unguent,” a semi-liquid ointment or salve.

“Mr. and Mrs. Browning,” Fraser’s Magazine, 43 (Feb. 1851), 180-81.

EBB Archive HomePoemsAbout the EBB Archive

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-03-10
This page is copyrighted by the EBB Archive