Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Words and Music, Take 2: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and More

photo courtesy google images

"Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father's name;
Piled high, packed large,--where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastadon, I nibbled here and there..."

My, oh, my, where did November go? Much activity and a number of details consumed the days, and before I could blink, the month was gone. However, like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I nibbled here and there in books. Not only that, secrets were uncovered--though credit goes not to a garret room but to the marvel that we now know as a Google search.

In my last post, Words and Music, I featured an anonymous quote that starts with the line, "Words are instruments of music..." I found it in an old book copyrighted 1947, and was intrigued by the metaphor. Though I tried to find its source, I had no luck. Oh, well, I tried. And that was that.

Or so I thought.

Theodore Tilton
Imagine my surprise when a friend found the source and sent me a link to it. Obviously his research skills are more developed than mine! The words were written by one Theodore Tilton, an American newspaper editor and poet, and are found in his book from 1870, Sanctum Sanctorum, Proof Sheets from an Editor's Desk. In the chapter "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (p. 51), Tilton wrote: "She knew the true art of choosing words...Words are instruments of music; an ignorant man uses them for jargon, but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarinet; some shout a charge like trumpets; some are sweet as children's talk, and others rich as a mother's answering back. The words which have universal power are those that have been keyed and chorded in the great orchestral chamber of the human heart. Some words touch as many notes at a stroke as when an organist strikes ten fingers upon a keyboard...No finer instance of this skill is found in the whole realm of good English, out of Shakespeare, than in the writings of Mrs. Browning, particularly in those who which pay homage to the affections."

Whoa. Mr. Tilton held Mrs. Browning's writings in high esteem for sure. But more than that was the thrill of discovery all these years later. A mid-20th century writer couldn't find the source for a quote written in the 19th century, but by the 21st century, there it is!

source: About the Brownings
Of course there is so much history in all of this, as is often the case. Reading more about Elizabeth opened up a whole new area of study, and I nibbled Google's smorgasbord about her--things like how she married Robert Browning, another beloved poet of the time, when she was 40 after being an invalid and recluse for a number of years. She was six years older than he. Three years later she gave birth to their only child, a son they nicknamed Pen. A beloved poet, she wrote on a variety of social injustices, including Italy's fight for independence, women's issues, child labor, and slavery. Much of her work reflected her Christian faith. And Tilton, too, has a history himself (here) that included his passion for the game of chess. So much information out there, one can get lost...

Maybe I identify more with Ms. Browning than I realize--a mouse nibbling between the ribs of a mastadon-size wealth of information known as the internet. But December is here, and I'm thinking it's time to get out of the garret and back to the writing desk.

How about you, any subjects you've feasted on lately?

More quotes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

"The little cares that fretted me,
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds at play." 

"With stammering lips and insufficient sound I strive and struggle to deliver right the music of my nature."

"Earth's crammed with heaven...
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes."

"Light tomorrow with today."


  1. Where would we be without Google? I have to admit, a great deal of the research I do for my writing comes through the Internet. I can't imagine how I'd manage without it. As for recent "feasting" (beyond Thanksgiving, of course), I've been looking into Grimm's fairy tales for my current fantasy WIP.

    1. I can't imagine life without Google now either, Peggy. I remember the high school days at the library's card catalogue--how in the world would we manage with just that anymore? And your interest in Grimm's fairy tales sounds intriguing--wonder where that will take you? Thanks for dropping in :-)

  2. Oh, I loved the verses from Browning so much, I downloaded a free version of Sonnets from the Portuguese.

    And yes, words are musical instruments and express sounds known as onomatopoeia.

    Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful. I'd been a bit worried that you weren't coming back, and that would've been sad. ;)

    1. Cathy, after reading a smattering of Elizabeth's poetry I now want to read Sonnets of the Portuguese, too. I also realized I have a volume of Robert Browning poetry on my shelf--a gift from a girlhood friend. I'm reading him, too, after all these years of neglecting the gift.

      Thanks for your kind words! Glad to have you as a blogger friend :-)