by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861
"Grief" appears in Barrett Browning's two-volume 1844 collection titled simply Poems. (She was at that point just "E.B. Barrett": she did not meet Robert Browning until the following year. They were married in 1846.) Her previous collection, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, had been published in 1838, so presumably "Grief" was composed sometime between those two dates, when the poetess was in her mid-thirties.
Loss and grief are dominant themes all through those 1844 volumes, but if "Grief" was inspired by any one death, it was probably that of Elizabeth's brother Edward in 1840. "One stroke ended my youth," she wrote in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford. Elizabeth was the first of the Moulton-Barrett's twelve children; Edward, born fifteen months later, was the second. They were particularly close.
Elizabeth's grief at Edward's death was made worse by guilt. Edward drowned while pleasure-sailing off Torquay, in southwest England. Elizabeth had gone to Torquay from the family's London home against her father's wishes, hoping the seaside air would improve her health. Edward had gone down to keep her company; and when their father had said Edward had stayed in Torquay too long and should return to London, Elizabeth had begged that he be allowed to stay longer.
This seems to be one of those poems that many modern readers find hard to understand. Here is a prose equivalent.
I tell you that hopeless grief is not expressed with any display of emotion. Only people who can't believe in real despair — whose education in sorrow is incomplete — go to God shrieking and complaining. Real desolation of spirit is like a geographical desert: It lies silent and bare under the bleaching, bright, high sun. Deep-hearted man, express grief for your dead with a silence that is like death. That would most resemble a stone statue standing without movement until at last it crumbled to dust. If you touched its eyelids, you would feel no tears. If it was capable of weeping, it would be like a living thing, able to move.
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I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death —
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.