A Tale Of Two Poets: The Love Story Of Liz And Robert Browning

A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster

Much has been written about love. In classical literature, great romances abound. Who hasn’t dreamed of a passionate affair while reading tales of Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and everyone’s favourite, Bill Clinton and — well, just about every woman over the age of 18?

But most love stories we read are fanciful at best. Romeo and Juliet were just figments of Shakespeare’s vivid imagination after a few jugs of honey mead. Although there is some evidence Romeo did exist since someone named a pair of slippers after him.

Certainly Cleopatra was once Queen of Egypt and Antony, a famous Roman political leader and general. Their little tryst aboard Cleo’s yacht adds credence to a seismologist’s report in 58 BC of a knee trembler toppling one of the smaller pyramids and starting a tsunami down the Nile washing away several towels and a picnic basket from a Cairo beach.

One love affair we can be sure of however is the torrid romance of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Those two sex-crazed poets were the talk of England in the mid-19th century. They married against her father’s wishes in 1846 (Liz was just a child of 40, don’t you know) and took off for Italy to take advantage of the cheap rooms and Friday evening pasta specials. The stories of their noisy dalliances were a positive scandal and no less than Pope Pius IXhimself threw a pail of cold water on them after a particularly exuberant bout of late-night lovemaking broke a number of stained glass windows in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

The intensity of their love shows up many times in their poetic works. Robert wrote “Fra Lippo Lippi” during a dry spell in January. Elizabeth had been hospitalised after a particularly passionate moment. She missed his lips altogether and laid a smooch on a frozen wrought iron fence.

Her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” was written in Lisbon while Robert was recuperating from a musical injury. He had been serenading her under a balcony and in her enthusiasm she knocked a cement urn down on his head. Until his death in 1889 he was unable to comb his hair without an anaesthetist in attendance.

Elizabeth’s poetry was every bit as interesting and acclaimed as the work of her husband. Unfortunately her careless use of punctuation caused many of her poems to be discarded by the publishers of the day.

An excellent example of her failure to self-edit was her wonderful poem, “To Flush, My Dog” which she mailed to Herman Melville in exchange for some seasick pills. He forwarded a copy of “To Flush My Dog” to Dr. Ballard, his veterinarian, who later published it as a cure for digestive parasites and canine flatulence. It was only after a number of animals died and Ballard was assassinated by an animal rights organization that the error was discovered.

Robert of course was no slouch as a poet himself and many of his more popular verses are still read today. His celebrated, ‘Some come here to sit and think’ was painstakingly carved into a washroom wall in Westminster Abby and has been credited with convincing Edward the 8th to abdicate the throne and run off with Wallis Simpson – the logic escapes me.

Literary historians believe a mouse running up Elizabeth’s leg on their honeymoon inspired Robert to write ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ which was later made into a movie starring Van Johnson and June Allyson, with Tyrone Power in a cameo role as a cheese merchant.

It is a well-known fact that the late-night visitation by little Mickey during their honeymoon had a disastrous effect on Robert’s lovemaking abilities. He once confessed to Hans Christian Andersen that whenever he saw whiskers he could not perform. Elizabeth had to shave her legs twice a day or sleep on the couch.

Andersen understood his dilemma completely and confided that he had a similar problem with geese. He could not achieve an erection unless Mrs. Andersen wore goose feathers, yellow rain boots and quacked. Robert kept this information in confidence until later that afternoon when it just happened to slip out while he was being interviewed by a reporter from the Copenhagen Chronicle. Andersen was forced to leave his beloved Denmark from the embarrassment and never forgave Browning.

There is little doubt that the masterpiece of Elizabeth Barrett Browning work was her immortal, ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which most literary scholars believe was a tribute to the bedroom skills of her husband, Robert. It was later discovered that ‘Let me count the ways’ was actually the title of a chapter in a book of love secrets she was compiling. Liz was in the process of documenting various lovemaking positions. They were at #9 when Robert threw his back out.

The book was never finished. Although “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” the chapter on great pick-up lines, was later published and made into the Academy Award musical, Sound of Music.

Elizabeth died in 1861 some 28 years before her husband and was buried in a Y-shaped coffin in Westminster Abbey. To this day, clerics talk of a ghostly apparition who wanders the halls saying, “Bob! Bob! Are you awake?”

According to medical records Robert never recovered from his back injury and remained in traction until his death. The constant stress of being stretched day after day had a disastrous effect on his body. When he died in 1889, Robert was some 27’ tall. Instead of being laid out in a coffin, he was wound around a garden hose caddy and hung on the outside wall of Lord Byron’s tool shed.

Today, over 150 years later, their poems are still popular with high school English teachers and mental patients.

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