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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Human Life's Mystery: Affirmation of God Is Love


Human Life’s Mystery

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

We sow the *glebe, we reap the corn,
We build the house where we may rest,
And then, at moments, suddenly,
We look up to the great wide sky,
Inquiring wherefore we were born…
For earnest or for jest?

The senses folding thick and dark
About the stifled soul within,
We guess diviner things beyond,
And yearn to them with yearning fond;
We strike out blindly to a mark
Believed in, but not seen.

We vibrate to the pant and thrill
Wherewith Eternity has curled
In serpent-twine about God’s seat;
While, freshening upward to His feet,
In gradual growth His full-leaved will
Expands from world to world.

And, in the tumult and excess
Of act and passion under sun,
We sometimes hear—oh, soft and far,
As silver star did touch with star,
The kiss of Peace and Righteousness
Through all things that are done.

God keeps His holy mysteries
Just on the outside of man’s dream;
In *diapason slow, we think
To hear their pinions rise and sink,
While they float pure beneath His eyes,
Like swans *adown a stream.

Abstractions, are they, from the forms
Of His great beauty?—exaltations
From His great glory?—strong previsions
Of what we shall be?—intuitions
Of what we are—in calms and storms,
Beyond our peace and passions?

Things nameless! which, in passing so,
Do stroke us with a subtle grace.
We say, ‘Who passes?’—they are dumb.
We cannot see them go or come:
Their touches fall soft, cold, as snow
Upon a blind man’s face.

Yet, touching so, they draw above
Our common thoughts to Heaven’s unknown,
Our daily joy and pain advance
To a divine significance,
Our human love—O mortal love,
That light is not its own!

And sometimes horror chills our blood
To be so near such mystic Things,
And we wrap round us for defence
Our purple manners, moods of sense—
As angels from the face of God
Stand hidden in their wings.

And sometimes through life’s heavy *swound 
 We grope for them!—with strangled breath
We stretch our hands abroad and try
To reach them in our agony,—
And widen, so, the broad life-wound
Which soon is large enough for death.

* glebe - land
* diapason - harmonious sound
* adown - adorn
* swound - swoon 

"We look to the sky inquiring wherefore we were born." At some point we all do this, don't we? We wonder what circumstance and what fertilized miracle put our particular soul into this singular earthly existence. We wonder about who we really are and what we were meant to be. Perhaps, we will never find the answers to these perplexing questions. One might ask if answers that crease our human brains even exist.

The unique soul we possess comes to life on planet Earth without a smidgen of our control. The die was cast and, at some point, we developed a consciousness capable of questioning the reason and purpose of our journey here. And, believe me, many, many think they might have answers.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates as of 2013, 7.176 billion people are alive on earth. Then, to get a perspective on human kind, we must consider how many of us have ever walked the globe. One learned estimate assumes that if we started counting from 50,000 B.C., the time when modern Homo sapiens appeared on the earth, approximately 106 billion people have been born since the dawn of the human race.

So, roughly 6% of all people who have ever lived are here today. Each of us is a speck of humanity born in wonder. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had the great intellect to write about her conceptions.

Browning (1806 – 1861) questioned the mysteries of life. Her poetry makes us consider all the tumult and excess we consume as part of blinding existing among others while making our way to the inevitable end of our days. Birth -- life between -- Death. What is it all about?

The mysteries of human life are many. What way are we meant to exist? How should we "sow" and "reap"? Where should we dwell? We wonder if we were born as part of a divine purpose or possibly, just in jest.  As Browning writes: "We strike out blindly to a mark/Believed in, but not seen."

The quests to fill the most important parts of our lives leave us wondering about our own decisions? How did we find the right lover? Or could we even hope to find one by mere chance and minute familiarity with all others? How did we make our desired friends? Don't we all really rely upon His grace to experience "the pants and thrills" and occasionally "hear the kiss of peace and righteousness through all things that are done"? Inside each of us remains the incredible yearning for more -- more understanding and more human love.

Are the most incredible moments of life but abstractions of "His holy mysteries"? Is not the fate of our existence, even mortal love, a form of "light that is not its own"? Here, on earth, God's love is abstract -- the true love we seek is holy and what "we shall be." Try as we might to reach that light here, we fall short because "God keeps his holy mysteries just outside of man's dream." Life -- the good, the bad -- is lived within that ever-widening "wound which soon becomes large enough for death." We seek a goal beyond the bounds of human existence.

Browning believed that real art led the soul to contemplate God, the supreme Artist of the universe.
Yet, she understood art was not the highest, the ultimate —

"Art is much, but Love is more!
O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven."

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

Understanding Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Understanding Elizabeth Browning's life increases the reader's understanding of her poetry. Born in England, she was the eldest of 12 children. Browning was educated at home.

Browning was an intensely studious, precocious child. She writes that at age six she was reading novels, at eight she was entranced by Pope's translations of Homer, studying Greek at ten and writing her own Homeric epic, The Battle of Marathon: A Poem. The poetry Browning began writing from around the age of six was compiled by her mother, comprising what is now one of the largest collections extant of juvenilia by any English writer. 

At 15 Browning became ill, suffering from intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life, rendering her frail. She took laudanum (opium - a perfectly legal patent medicine then) for the pain, which may have led to a lifelong addiction and contributed to her weak health. Her own sufferings could never daunt her in the pursuit of learning.

Browning's first adult collection The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. During this time she contracted a disease, possibly tuberculosis, which weakened her further. Browning wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation and prose.

Browning believed that "Christ's religion is essentially poetry—poetry glorified." She explored the religious aspect in many of her poems, especially in her early work, such as the sonnets. She was interested in theological debate, had learned Hebrew and read the Hebrew Bible. The poem "Aurora Leigh," for example, features religious imagery and allusion to the apocalypse.

She said in her writing ...

"We want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty."

She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in child labor legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for the poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth. 

Browning's volume Poems (1844) brought her great success. During this time she met and corresponded with the writer Robert Browning, who admired her work. The courtship and marriage between the two were carried out in secret, for fear of her father's disapproval.

Following the wedding she was disinherited by her father and rejected by her brothers. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. At the age of 43, between four miscarriages, she gave birth to a son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Towards the end of her life, her lung function worsened, and she died on 29 June 1861 in her husband's arms. Browning said that she died "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's. … Her last word was … 'Beautiful'".

A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death. Browning may be most remembered for her poem "How Do I love Thee?" The themes of "Human Life's Mystery" are so apparent in this work, too: the need for love, the longings of human existence, the dedication to a heavenly faith.

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I have learned through the eyes and pen of Browning. I hope this post furthers your understanding of life. Or ... perhaps, just opens your heart and mind to a more detailed quest for finding more peace on earth.

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