Thursday, 6 March 2014

Barrett, like the poet?

It is World Book Day again, and also Elizabeth Barrett's birthday, so there is an obvious choice for my yearly book post!

I did study her poetry briefly when I did my undergraduate degree, but the poem that has stayed with me, perhaps embarrassingly, is Sonnet 22 from Sonnets from the Portuguese. Why do I remember this poem? Because Ali MacGraw recited it when she played Jenny in Love Story. Jenny Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett's wedding is one of my favourite screen weddings - it's small and intimate, sweet and personal. Jenny's father, Phil, calls it a "do-it-yourself wedding"; in 1970 this wasn't such a well-known idea as it is now. And Jenny's long-sleeved, short dress, and the wild flowers in her hair and bridal posy are pretty and modest.

The short wedding service begins, and Jenny recites the sonnet by the poet who shares Oliver's surname:

When our two souls stand up erect and strong, 
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher, 
Until the lengthening wings break into fire 
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong 
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long 
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher, 
The angels would press on us and aspire 
To drop some golden orb of perfect song 
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay 
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit 
Contrarious moods of men recoil away 
And isolate pure spirits, and permit 
A place to stand and love in for a day, 
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

Afterwards, Oliver recites his vows: the last few lines of Walt Whitman's beautiful Song of the Open Road:

I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Even if you have no intention of seeing Love Story (it has an undeserved corny reputation, I think) or reading the book (which is told in the first person, from Oliver's perspective, making it quite different in tone), I hope you're intrigued enough to read some Elizabeth Barrett or Walt Whitman in the future.

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