Rare 19th Century British Literature Discovery, Deep in the Heart of Texas

April 22, 2010

Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library Celebrates Annual Browning Festival May 6-8 With Newly Found Manuscript by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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The last place you'd expect to find a hand-written manuscript from one of the giants of 19th century British literature would be deep the heart of Texas. Yet, that is where it is.

Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University recently made one of its rarest discoveries: a notebook written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that contains the earliest known draft manuscript of "Sonnet Five" from her best-known work, Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Owned and composed by the famed poet circa 1839-1846 - during her courtship with Robert Browning - the notebook was transcribed by library director Rita S. Patteson. Tiny, spider-like handwriting on the title page calls out to the reader from across two centuries: "MSS. by Elizabeth B. Barrett." In the notebook's 100-plus pages, Elizabeth's script reveals numerous works in draft form, including three previously unpublished poems, "The Gorse," "The Repose," and "An Ode to America."

On the notebook's final leaf, stanzas thought originally to be the conclusion of "An Ode to America" were discovered to be substantially different from the ode's early stanzas and, in fact, proved to be a draft of one of Barrett Browning's famous sonnets, "Sonnet Five." Patteson's honed skill at deciphering the 170-year-old handwriting was put to full use. This early draft of "Sonnet Five," with words crossed out and rewritten, reveals how the sonnet began to take shape before it took its ultimate published form:

I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,... those laurels on thine head,
O My beloved, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! Go.

Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor is a gem of a facility holding the world's largest collection of material related to both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Each year, the library holds its Browning celebration, coinciding with the anniversary of Robert's birth date of May 7. The 2010 Browning Festival May 6-8 will draw scholars and other lovers of Browning poetry from around the world.

The highlight will be an address by Dr. Scott Lewis, editor of The Brownings' Correspondence, president of the Browning Society (London) and senior research fellow of De Montfort University in Leicester, England. He will speak at 2:30 p.m., May 7, in the library's McLean Foyer of Meditation.

Lewis, who is writing a biography of Dr. A. J. Armstrong, will address the life and work of the man who founded the library during his 40-year career at Baylor. Donating his own Browning collection to Baylor in 1918, Armstrong was the driving force in acquiring books and other artifacts of the Brownings throughout his lifetime and in raising the necessary funding to build the library which opened in 1951.

Lewis says it was Armstrong's skill as an impresario as well as a scholar that led to the library's creation. "Early on, Armstrong brought not only great poets such as Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost to Baylor, he also arranged for leading performing artists such as Marian Anderson, Basil Rathbone and Katharine Cornell to perform in Waco.

"He fully understood the need to obtain resources, and he used these performances to raise funds to support the creation of the library. The building and its collection are his greatest achievement."

Tireless in his passion, Armstrong was an "evangelist for poetry," Lewis said. "He saw literature and the arts as an extension of the spiritual life. And his stamina for work was amazing; he routinely put in 16 to 18-hour days."

Armstrong's passion has resulted in a legacy of more than 25,000 volumes and over 10,000 letters, manuscripts and artifacts in the library's collection - and a staff dedicated to tracking and acquiring others as they become known. Patteson worked with Browning scholar Dr. Sandra Donaldson, University of North Dakota professor of English and Women Studies, in transcribing the new notebook after the library acquired it in a Christie's auction. Donaldson led a team of Browning scholars including Patteson that recently produced the first modern scholarly edition of Elizabeth's texts, a five-volume set entitled The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pickering & Chatto, 2010). The newly discovered works from the notebook are included.

These early versions are important in understanding the life's work of a writer, Patteson said. "Looking at all editions, line by line, teaches us how the poetry developed and helps us see the poet's process of writing."

Lewis concurs. "Seeing these newly discovered works provides an opportunity for a fresh reading of the poem. It provides us with lines we have never seen before, and in so doing, gives us new understanding of how the poet worked."

Browning Festival, May 6-8
Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University
710 Speight Ave. at Eighth Street, Waco, Texas

7 p.m., Thursday, May 6: Waco Children's Choir

Performing resident composer's Carlos Colon's new setting of Robert Browning's poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin

2:30 p.m., Friday, May 7: Choir Competition Winners Followed by Annual Lecture
China Spring High School Choir will sing the winning composition of the library-sponsored competition held by Baylor School of Music
Following the performance, Dr. Scott Lewis will deliver the Browning Festival annual lecture

7 p.m., Saturday, May 8: Acoustic Performance
Guitarist Richard Smith and his wife Julie Adams on cello with a strings ensemble

Admission to all events is free

Contact: Jill Scoggins, Assistant Vice President for Media Communications, (254) 710-1964

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