Poem of the Day: ‘My Letters, All Dead Paper’
The ‘dead paper’ that comprises a series of love letters is animated and illuminated by the words inscribed on it, even as the speaker herself is brought to life by those words.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) was considered a serious contender for the post of British poet laureate, ultimately awarded to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, following the death of William Wordsworth in 1850. Her “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” published that same year, masquerade as translations: an attempt on the poet’s part to achieve some illusory distance from their self-revelatory subject matter. In this Petrarchan sonnet, the “dead paper” that comprises a series of love letters is animated and illuminated by the words inscribed on it, even as the speaker herself is brought to life by those words.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 28: My Letters, All Dead Paper, . . . Mute and White
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
My letters! all dead paper, . . . mute and white ! —
And yet they seem alive and quivering
Against my tremulous hands which loose the string
And let them drop down on my knee to-night.
This said, . . . he wished to have me in his sight
Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring
To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing,
Yet I wept for it! — this, . . . the paper’s light . . .
Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed
As if God’s future thundered on my past.
This said, I am thine — and so its ink has paled
With lying at my heart that beat too fast.
And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed,
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by the Sun’s poetry editor, Joseph Bottum of Dakota State University, with the help of a North Carolina poet, Sally Thomas. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.