The Picture Gallery at Penshurst

Table of contents

1. The Picture Gallery at Penshurst

They spoke unto me from the silent ground,
They look’d unto me from the pictured wall:
The echo of my footstep was a sound
Like to the echo of their own footfall,
What time their living feet were in the hall.
I breathed where they had breathed--and where they brought
Their souls to moralize on glory’s pall,7
I walk’d with silence in a cloud of thought:
So, what they erst9 had learn’d, I mine own spirit taught.
Ay! with mine eyes of flesh, I did behold
The likeness of their flesh! They, the great dead,
Stood still upon the canvass, while I told
The glorious memories to their ashes wed.
There, I beheld the Sidneys:--he, who bled14
Freely for freedom’s sake, bore gallantly
His soul upon his brow;--he, whose lute16 said
Sweet music to the land, meseem’d to be
Dreaming with that pale face, of love and Arcadie.18
Mine heart had shrinëd these. And therefore past
Were these, and such as these, in mine heart’s pride,
Which deem’d death, glory’s other name. At last
I stay’d my pilgrim feet, and paused beside
A picture, which the shadows half did hide.
The form was a fair woman's form;24 the brow
Brightly between the clustering curls espied:
The cheek a little pale, yet seeming so
As, if the lips could speak, the paleness soon would go.
And rested there the lips, so warm and loving,
That, they could speak, one might be fain29 to guess:
Only they had been much too bright, if moving,
To stay by their own will, all motionless.
One outstretch’d hand its marble seal 'gan press32
On roses which look’d fading; while the eyes,
Uplifted in a calm, proud loveliness,
Seem’d busy with their flow’ry destinies,
Drawing, for ladye’s36 heart, some moral quaint and wise.
She perish’d like her roses. I did look
On her, as she did look on them--to sigh!
Alas, alas! that the fair-written book
Of her sweet face, should be in death laid by,
As any blotted scroll! Its cruelty
Poison’d a heart most gentle-pulsed of all,42
And turn’d it unto song, therein to die:
For grief’s stern tension maketh musical,
Unless the strain’d string break or ere45 the music fall.
Worship of Waller’s heart! no dream of thine
Reveal’d unto thee, that the lowly one,
Who sate48 enshadow’d near thy beauty’s shine,
Should, when the light was out, the life was done,
Record thy name with those by Memory won
From Time’s eternal burial. I am woo’d
By wholesome thoughts this sad thought hath begun;
For mind is strengthened when awhile subdued,
As he who touch’d the earth, and rose with power renew’d.54

2. Note on the text

EBB may have visited Penshurst Place, the stately home in Kent of the illustrious Sidney family, on a trip to nearby Tunbridge Wells (possibly in 1826). a1 Works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and other famous painters were displayed in its long gallery, including portraits of Tudor and Stuart monarchs alongside the family’s military and political leaders and its notable writers, Sir Philip Sidney and his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. Penshurst Place and its noble family had been idealized in Ben Jonson's poem “To Penshurst,” which initiated the seventeenth-century genre of country-house poetry. a2 Whereas EBB had previously used the formal Spenserian stanza in her “Stanzas on the Death of Lord Byron” (1824) to elegize a dead poet (as Shelley had done for Keats in “Adonais,” 1821), she here employs it to focus not only on the dead poet or painter, but on his silent female muse as well.

3. Explanatory Notes

pall the cloth traditionally covering a coffin or bier.

erst formerly.

he, who bled Algernon Sidney (1622-83), statesman who espoused the republican cause against the monarchy in England’s 17th-century civil war and was executed after the Restoration of Charles II. He was the brother of Lady Dorothy Sidney.

he, whose lute Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), author of works including the “Defence of Poesie,” the sonnet sequence “Astrophel and Stella,” and the romance “Arcadia.”

Arcadie Arcadia, an imaginary site used by Greek poets and their successors to epitomize bucolic rustic simplicity and contentment.

A picture...woman's form A painting of Lady Dorothy Sidney (b. 1617), who became the Countess of Sunderland after her marriage. The Penshurst portrait by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), who painted her several times, depicts her in the aristocratic pastoral mode popular at the time, wearing a shepherdess’s costume interpreted in satin and jewels.

fain willing or obliged.

'gan press began to press.

ladye archaic spelling for lady.

a heart most gentle-pulsed of all Around 1635-39 Edmund Waller (1606-87) wrote some twenty poems recording his unrequited love for Dorothy Sidney, whom he addressed as “Sacharissa” (coined from the Latin for sugar). Samuel Johnson judged that those familiar with Waller’s character “will not much condemn Sacharissa that she did not descend from her rank to his embraces” (qtd in Julia Cartwright, Sacharissa, p. 33). EBB compared her own nickname “Ba” with “Sacharissa” in “The Pet Name” (1838).

or ere before.

sate archaic spelling of sat, regularly used by EBB.

As he...renew'd In classical myth the giant Antaeus (son of Terra and Neptune, earth and ocean) renewed his strength in combat each time he touched his mother earth. Hercules eventually defeated him by holding him aloft and squeezing him.

See Taplin, 48. In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) Elizabeth Bennet’s tour of Pemberley (ch. 43) illustrates the practice of traveling gentry’s touring private stately homes, especially the picture galleries.

EBB knew the works of Jonson (1572-1637) well enough to quote them from memory in her correspondence. Country-house poems celebrate noble patrons by praising the taste and prudent management evident in their estates and homes as manifestations of their superior characters. In the seventeenth century long galleries featuring family portraits had become important markers of prestige.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-01-24
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