Void in Law

Table of contents

1. Void in Law

Sleep, little babe, on my knee,
Sleep, for the midnight is chill,
And the moon has died out in the tree,
And the great human world goeth ill.
Sleep, for the wicked agree:
Sleep, let them do as they will.
Sleep, thou hast drawn from my breast
The last drop of milk that was good;
And now, in a dream, suck the rest,
Lest the real should trouble thy blood.
Suck, little lips dispossessed,
As we kiss in the air whom we would.
O lips of thy father! the same,
So like! Very deeply they swore
When he gave me his ring and his name,
To take back, I imagined, no more!
And now is all changed like a game,
Though the old cards are used as of yore?
“Void in law,” said the Courts. Something wrong
In the forms? Yet, “Till death part us two,
I, James, take thee, Jessie,” was strong,
And ONE witness competent. True
Such a marriage was worth an old song,
Heard in Heaven though, as plain as the New.
Sleep, little child, his and mine!
Her throat has the antelope curve,
And her cheek just the color and line
Which fade not before him nor swerve:
Yet she has no child!—the divine
Seal of right upon loves that deserve.
My child! though the world take her part,
Saying “She was the woman to choose,
He had eyes, was a man in his heart,”—
We twain the decision refuse:
We . . weak as I am, as thou art, . .
Cling on to him, never to loose.
He thinks that, when done with this place,
All’s ended? he’ll new-stamp the ore?
Yes, Cæsar’s2 —but not in our case.
Let him learn we are waiting before
The grave’s mouth, the heaven’s gate, God’s face,
With implacable love evermore.
He’s ours, though he kissed her but now;
He’s ours, though she kissed in reply;
He’s ours, though himself disavow,
And God’s universe favor the lie;
Ours to claim, ours to clasp, ours below,
Ours above, . . if we live, if we die.
Ah baby, my baby, too rough
Is my lullaby? What have I said?
Sleep! When I’ve wept long enough
I shall learn to weep softly instead,
And piece with some alien stuff
My heart to lie smooth for thy head.
Two souls met upon thee, my sweet;
Two loves led thee out to the sun:
Alas, pretty hands, pretty feet,
If the one who remains (only one)
Set her grief at thee, turned in a heat
To thine enemy,—were it well done?
May He of the manger stand near
And love thee! An infant He came
To His own who rejected Him here,
But the Magi brought gifts all the same.
I hurry the cross on my Dear!
My gifts are the griefs I declaim!

2. Note on the text

With its strong resemblances to “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” this poem, posthumously published in Last Poems (1862), reflects the continuing impact of traditional ballad forms on EBB’s experiments with dramatic monologues and dramatic lyrics. In her 1845 exchange with Henry Chorley over literary grandmothers, she praised “the pathetic ‘Ballow my babe,’ which tradition calls ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’” (BC 10:13) as one of two true poems written by women before the time of the Scottish poetess Joanne Baillie (1762-1851). In the 21st century, this traditional ballad is still widely popular, as the many musical versions of it on the internet indicate. “Void in Law,” titled “Wife & Mother / A Lullaby” in one ms (R D1099), similarly takes the form of a lullaby to a child uttered by a betrayed woman—although a comparison with traditional folk versions indicates that EBB has intensified the bitterness, the internal conflict, the interaction with the baby, and the possessiveness of the female speaker to underscore the poem’s concluding ironies. The poem’s change in title and EBB’s rearrangement of stanzas in ms also emphasize her critique of the laws affecting women, a subject earlier treated in Casa Guidi Windows (1851).a1 In the fullest critical treatment, Stephenson (1989) considers “Void in Law” in the context of the dramatic portrayals of possessive and controlling love throughout Last Poems. For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

In the Morgan draft ms, Stanza VII follows Stanza VIII.

Cæsar’s Alludes to Christ’s words to the Pharisees in Matthew 22.21, “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Book 2, ll. 638-9, Casa Guidi Windows in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Selected Annotated Critical Edition, ed. Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (Broadview Press, 2009). On the gender inequities encoded in nineteenth-century British law, see A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women: Together with a Few Observations Thereon (1854), written by women’s rights activist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-91).

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 10-MAR-2009
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