123. “The Best” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61)

What’s the best thing in the world?

June-rose, by May-dew empearl’d’

Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;

Truth, not cruel to a friend;

Pleasure, not in haste to end;

Beauty, not self-deck’d and curl’d

Till its pride is over-plain;

Light, that never makes you wink;

Memory, that gives no pain;

Love, when, so, you’re loved again.

What’s the best thing in the world?

–Something out of it, I think.

(1855)

Unlike  many of the authors who have graced this digital feature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not need to be brought up from obscurity via Wikipedia; I will leave you with her overview page from the Victorian Web and be done with that part of things for now.

What I really want to talk about is this idea of value–“the best” or “the best thing in the world.” It’s loosely inspired by my ongoing exchange with Mia, where I’ll tell her that I’ve made a new Poem of the Week post and she’ll ask me when I’m going to talk about a poem that sucks or that I dislike. I tend to evade this question for a number of reasons. One of the most important is this: I don’t really have a stable category in my head for bad poetry, at least not when I’m coming at it intellectually in this way. (Yes, I’m considering these blog posts to be intellectual work. When’s summer again?) I mean, I know that there is “bad” poetry out there and that much of it was written in the nineteenth century. If you click on the “About” tab for this blog and then scroll down a bit, you’ll find an example thereof. In fact, McGonagall is considered to be one of the worst poets in the English language. But what do we mean by “worst”? Certainly, the versification leaves something to be desired, and the fact that we find ourselves giggling at a poem about a horrible disaster is not entirely fortuitous, to say the least. It is no “Wreck of the Deutschland.” (N.B. Neither of these poems appear in the OBVV. Hopkins is represented by “The Starlight Night,” and McGonagall, perhaps to Quiller-Couch’s credit, does not appear at all.)

McGonagall, of course, is perhaps not a fair example. He falls more or less into the “so bad it’s good” category–and we get some pleasure from that, at least. And this kind of “bad” poetry can often be interesting on a number of levels, too. I’m not sure I’m ready to commit my life to a study of McGonagall and other poets of the Spasmodic school, but I am sometimes fascinated by their poetics: I had a great time reading Sidney Dobell’s “Nature of Poetry” for my orals last year.

And I guess this is all part of what I do. Once I’ve gotten the poems that speak to me on an intensely personal level (say, Maud, or certain sections of Aurora Leigh), I’m basically left with the question of “is it interesting/useful”? Can it be opened up by close reading? Is it worth it at all? Do I learn anything? (I conceptualize this last question broadly and ask it somewhat reluctantly…it’s more complicated than I’m willing to go into right now.) Many of the poems I’ve looked at here have been, if not the most earthshattering specimens ever, at least worth a bit  more consideration, a thousand words and a handful of Google searches. And that’s not all bad, right? I do this because it makes me happy, and I’m not willing to give that up lightly; if anything, it’s a point of connection between me and our friend Arthur Quiller-Couch.

This is all an answer to a somewhat different question than the one Mia asked me, and it’s also one that’s veered off in a completely individualized direction. It can’t explain why we as a profession still read what we read, why some poets are valued more highly than others, and all the myriad accidents and causes that come together to manifest themselves as something so absurd as a literary canon. It all gets really contingent when you think about it, and my guess is that most of us would rather think in terms of disciplinary history and the vagaries of the publishing world and what some dude at Cambridge was reading before the First World War.

…but have you ever stopped to think of what a miracle a poem–even a bad one–is?

Somehow this is all suggested to me by this notion of “The Best.” At first glance, EBB’s “Best” seems to be a kind of anesthetized middle ground, a kind of cozy mediocrity. It’s old fashioned and kind of quaint, all culminating in a transcendent moment that verges into cliche. And that’s probably why it doesn’t make it to, say, the EBB section in The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse. (Interestingly, though, EBB is a much more substantial presence in the OBVV, with some sixteen poems. The Penguin gives her four, though–to be fair–the Sonnets from the Portuguese are included in their entirety.) It’s also not numbered among the “other poems” in the fairly recent Penguin edition of Aurora Leigh and Other Poems.

But I suppose what strikes me about this poem, what makes it more than quaint, is its very destabilizing of those broad categories that are supposed to be universal–truth, pleasure, beauty, light, memory, love–by dramatizing them in moments that can only be transitional at best, moments that pass away as soon as you notice that they are there. Benign passages that are dangerous because they can’t stay. Why is the “June-rose” the best thing in the world? Perhaps because it is untimely, because it still bears traces of a past evanescence. And all of this makes me think that there’s something far more agonizing about the fact that the best thing in the world is such because it is out of it….but as I’m rapidly transcending my 1000-word limit, I’ll leave that for you to contemplate.

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