Female Poets at Baylor: Fiona Sampson and EBB

By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate Museum Studies
Graduate Assistant Armstrong Browning Library and Museum

Last month the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum in partnership with the Beall Poetry Festival hosted distinguished English poet Fiona Sampson. Over the course of two days Sampson performed a poetry reading and presented a lecture to the Baylor community and greater Waco. The poet read selections from her collection entitled, The Catch. She then led a question-and-answer discussion about her poems, influences, and writing as a process. The second day Sampson lectured about her latest publication, Two Way Mirror, a biography about fellow English poet, Elizabeth Barret Browning (EBB), the first to be published in over thirty years.

Sampson, like EBB, is a distinguished poet and author. She has published twenty-nine books in a variety of genres such as poetry, biography, instructional books about writing as process, and translations of poetry from central and southeastern Europe. Sampson also holds an MBE, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for her contributions to literature. Her most recent collection of poems published in 2020 is entitled Come Down. She describes herself as an eco-poet, which is a style of writing that focuses on inhabited landscapes and built environments. Sampson is also a trained violinist and uses this skill as a guide for her poems’ structure, pattern, and flow. The result are contemplative poems which converse directly with the reader. When her poems are read aloud you can hear that she is in conversation with her subject matter; she is trying to figure out its essence.

For me, the themes that were most salient were light and dark, rising and falling, stones/rocks, and air. I learned that her poems are always moving, there is a distinct story being told about a moment or moments in time. Sampson creates vivid scenery which the listener/reader can distinctly see in their mind’s eye. An excellent example of her thematic use of landscape and cadence can be seen in:

Dante’s Cave Velika Dolina, Škocjan:

Finally I came
to the end of the world
to a limestone cliff
falling in pale steps

and far below a pool
somehow out of myth
proving that there
was nothing but the rock

to hold me up to raise me
into that clear air
where crows were looping where the eye
of God was gold

and inattentive then
I saw the end is air
and falling it is clean
and lovely it is blue.

 

Stock photograph of cliffs in Slovenia.

When I first heard Sampson read this poem I jotted down two notes, “falling” and “rocks holding me up.” During the reading, I visualized in my mind’s eye walking and hiking in the Austrian Alps during summer, where I come upon a cliff and look down and see immense beauty which makes me contemplative. I look up and see a beautiful sky and conclude that life is beautiful.  

Sampson took me on a cinematic journey in about two minutes solely through spoken word. It was not until the question-and-answer portion of the reading did I find out why her poetry had this effect on me. When asked by an audience member about which is harder for her, the writing or the performing of her poetry, Sampson answered that writing is more difficult. From there, she explained and said that poems are like songs and are a “gesture of communication” and that they “can only occur in time”, her poems are always moving through the timeline so that they “[don’t] get stuck” and when read aloud, record life. Sampson shared with us that EBB has impacted her sense of self as woman writer. Sampson, like EBB is a master of poetry, she studies and works her craft like any other great artist.

British dust jacket of Sampson’s EBB biography.

The second day Sampson presented a lecture about her latest work of non-fiction, Two Way Mirror, a biography about the poet EBB. This biography focuses on EBB’s adult life with her husband Robert. This focus contrasts with the last biography written about EBB, by Margaret Forster, whose focus is on EBB’s early years. Sampson opened the lecture with an in-depth history and analysis of an engraving of EBB, which is part of the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum’s collection. The original photograph was taken by Macaire & Macaire-Warnod and made into an engraving by Barlow. In it the poet is standing and glancing over her shoulder while looking directly at the camera. Sampson taught us that this stance makes the portrait modern because EBB’s gaze is direct and leaves the viewer with the feeling that EBB is staring into the future while at the same time remaining situated in her own time. Sampson also explained that Barlow’s engraving was sketched over (retouched) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. This 19th century photoshopping was encouraged by EBB’s husband Robert Browning. The final version was used as the frontispiece of EBB’s book-length poem, Aurora Leigh. This image was made for public consumption and was carefully controlled and constructed. The result is an engraving that presented the artist in the light she wanted to be seen, that of a strong, vivacious woman.

Rosetti’s Sketch with accompanying “photoshopping” notes.

At first, this lifting of the veil left me disenchanted with EBB because I wanted her to be a feminist who presented herself to the world without a filter. I contemplated for a few days and realized that this photoshopping decision was an act of feminism because it allowed EBB to control her narrative. EBB was an icon of her day; a modern-day comparison could be made to Beyoncé. During this lecture Sampson informed us that during her lifetime myths about her and Robert’s private life threatened to overshadow her work as a poet and social-political activist. Even during Victorian times fans were obsessed with the person behind the art. Sampson taught us that Elizabeth used her poetry and position within society to advance the social and political causes she supported such as ending child labor, ardently supporting the American abolition movement, and Italian independence. It is possible that EBB would not have been able to aid these movements if the public saw her as she was, a physically frail woman who often kept to her room due to chronic illness. She was a literary powerhouse who used her advantages of class and intellect to shape a narrative which sustained her and advanced her interests. This act is both modern and feminist. Therefore, it is befitting that a world-class poet such as Sampson write a new, fresh biography that examines both EBB the woman and EBB the icon.

Elizabeth Barret Browning. Influencer. Icon.

 

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