The Past

Table of contents

1. The Past

There is a silence upon the Ocean,
Albeit 2 it swells with a feverish motion;
Like to the battle-camp’s fearful calm,
While the banners are spread, and the warriors arm.
The winds beat not their drum to the waves,
But sullenly moan in the distant caves;
Talking over, before they rise,
Some of their dark conspiracies.
And so it is in this life of ours,
A calm may be on the present hours,
But the calmest hour of festive glee
May turn the mother of woe to thee.
I will betake me to the Past,
And she shall make my love at last;
I will find my home in her tarrying-place—
I will gaze all day on her deathly face!
Her form, though awful, is fair to view;
The clasp of her hand, though cold, is true;
Her shadowy brow hath no changefulness,
And her numbered smiles can grow no less!
Her voice is like a pleasant song,
Which we have not heard for very long,
And which a joy on our soul will cast,
Though we know not where we heard it last.
She shall walk with me, away, away,
Where’er the mighty have left their clay;
She shall speak to me in places lone,
With a low and holy tone.
Ay! when I have lit my lamp at night,
She will be present with my sprite;
And I will say, whate’er it be,
Every word she telleth me!

2. Note on the text

The evolution of EBB’s aesthetic practice reveals her participation in the important debate over the relative value of “past and present” as resource and subject matter for Victorian literature (see the “Introduction”, pp. **). While later works such as “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” and Casa Guidi Windows reflect a poetics of engagement with the contemporary world, “The Past” accords with the immersion in classical tradition that characterizes her earlier writings. This poem evidently had a special resonance for RB. During their courtship, in December 1845, he wrote to EBB that he had inscribed lines 27-32 of this poem in “my book, which holds my verses as I write them” (BC 11:247). They appear inside the cover of his embossed writing portfolio, enclosed within an intricately sketched boxed border and framed by Hebrew, Latin, and Italian inscriptions (leading some to assume that the lines were by RB himself and to publish them under his name). a1 On the facing page of the portfolio appears a printed copy— with the first line in ornate script— of “How do I love thee,” signed “E.B. Browning.”

3. Explanatory Notes

Albeit although.

Above the quotation thus framed appears a Hebrew inscription, “The possession eternal.” Below it RB wrote a Latin inscription from Virgil’s Aeneid (4.83): “absens absentum auditque videtque” (“absent [she] both hears and sees [him] absent”). Beneath the Latin inscription in turn, in large, ornate, framed script, appears the Italian phrase, “ALLA GIORNATA,” which literally means “to the day,” but is used idiomatically in a commemorative sense (as in “Here’s to the day we met” or “to the day we will meet again”), and also to imply that one must live by the day or accept life as it comes. On the same cover of RB’s writing portfolio (though turned upside down) appears an allegorical sketch, evidently of the “figure of the locust, with the face of a man and the crown upon its head,” from Revelation 9.7. The portfolio is now in the ABL. See R, Plate 9, for a reproduction of the inscribed lines; and R D706 and R H686 for related entries. The Hebrew, Latin, and Italian inscriptions are translated in Vivienne Browning’s My Browning Family Album (London: Springwood Books, 1979), pp. 58-59. The inscriptions were reproduced on the cover of The American University Courier (April 1918), with “She shall speak to me” (ll. 27-32 of EBB’s “The Past”) wrongly identified as lines by RB “now first published.” Vivienne Browning also misattributes the lines quoted from “The Past” to RB, and additionally notes that he later used the Virgil quotation in his portfolio in his memorial dedication to Joseph Milsand of Parleyings with Certain People of Importance (1887).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-01-23
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