WACO – When I took a trip through Baylor University’s campus this month, I found a lot of places I could absolutely write Traveling Soldier Stories about.Last week’s Traveling Soldier story was about my walk through the Mayborn Museum Complex, but when I left there, I found the Armstrong Browning Library.
This “library” has so much more to it than just any old library’s collection of books – the Armstrong Browning Library has the largest collection of Robert Browning’s poetry in the world.
Along with housing and protecting Robert’s famous words, the library also houses and protects the largest poetry collection of Robert’s equally-famous poet wife, Elizabeth Barrett.
I spent a good portion of my time in college studying different kinds of poetry and different poets, and while I might not consider myself a romantic person, I can’t help but smile a goofy, romantic smile while reading poetry from either of these poets (especially their poems to each other).
The Armstrong Browning Library is not only impressive, but the entire building could soften even the most stoic heart with how Barrett and Browning’s poems are on display.
Not to mention, this library houses the largest collection of secular stained glass in the world – 62 stained-glass windows in all. And even the stained glass oozes romantic lines from either the Bible, Browning or Barrett.
With hardly any light inside the museum that isn’t natural, even the ornate architecture is lit up beautifully.
Needless to say, I was walking around with my jaw on the floor in awe of how beautiful this place is.
Even the front doors – each weighing in at one full ton – are embossed with pictures and quotes of the love between a man and a woman, a father and his son, a mother and a daughter, and so on – all kinds of love are portrayed and appreciated at the library.
But Elizabeth and Robert’s love story is the most prominent thing in the library, telling how their romance was initiated after they were already well-published poets.
The Armstrong Browning Library has the original first letter Browning wrote to Barrett that states, “I love your verses with all my heart.”
That one line, written by Browning Jan. 10, 1845, initiated their romance, which resulted in their secret marriage and departure to Italy in 1846.
I was so lost in looking at original sketches and works by Barrett and Browning that it didn’t even occur to me to ask why the name “Armstrong” is part of the library’s name until it was almost time to leave.
Turns out, Dr. A.J. Armstrong, head of Baylor’s English Department from 1912-1952, started the Browning collection at the library from his own personal collection – a collection he had devoted his life to from studying the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
Armstrong has said he most admired Browning’s “boundless optimism and commitment to spiritual values,” and that admiration for Browning gave Armstrong the vision and energy to obtain the world’s largest Browning collection and, ultimately, the elegant, Victorian-style building on Baylor’s campus where the collection resides.
So for the past 50 years, the collection has continued growing in the library, along with other rare 19th-century research materials and numerous pieces of fine art from all over the world.
Each piece of art has a story that the staff at the library can tell in detail. Everything from Wedgwood to an impressive replica of the original Portland Vase is housed at the library on the bottom floor.
The third floor has the Pen Browning Gallery with four of his paintings
hanging in the stairwell up to the third floor. I found a room at the end of the hall on the third floor dedicated to portraying the Brownings’ lifestyle and personal taste.
There are actual items in the room that belonged to the Brownings, such as a kneeling bench, a writing table where they both wrote poetry, a portrait of their son, Pen, when he was a child, and the stained glass windows in the room
that illustrate Elizabeth’s poetry about she and Robert’s courtship.
Along with the massive art collections and original pieces of poetry from
both Browning and Barrett, the library also hosts weddings and other events in the McLean Foyer of Meditation on the main floor. In the alcove, there is a bronze sculpture of the poets’ clasped hands, with Elizabeth’s famous “Sonnet 43” to Robert written on one side and Robert’s soaring tribute to Elizabeth on the other.
Group tours are given by reservation at the library, but admission is free to daily guests. Hours are 9 a.m.-5p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Research hours are the same, but can only be done by appointment on Saturdays.
Don’t forget to check out their gift gallery for souvenirs and books from the library.