Introducing the Armstrong Browning Library’s Library Services Assistants, 2020-2021

At the Armstrong Browning Library, the Library Services Student Assistants help researchers access Armstrong Browning Library materials and support the library’s efforts to increase the visibility of its collections. The Library Services Assistants greet and register researchers. They provide directional information for the 3rd floor and the Austin-Moore Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon to building visitors. Additionally, Library Services Assistants inventory archival collections and transcribe archival materials. Please stop and say, “hello” to them when you are on the third floor of the Armstrong Browning Library.

Hudson Baker

Hudson Baker

Hudson Baker

Hometown: Houston, Texas
Major: University Scholars (Linguistics, Biochemistry, Philosophy, Medical Humanities)
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I’m looking forward to the beautiful artwork, reflective atmosphere, and rich history.
What food do you miss most when away from home? I miss my sister’s desserts: Butterfinger pudding, pizookie, and dessert lasagna, to name a few.

Azaria Finley

Azaria Finley

Azaria Finley

Hometown: I come from a military family, so I call home California since I lived there the longest.
Major: Social Work
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I am looking toward to interacting with different people and groups, and being able to form a community surrounded by literature. Being able to listen to the angelic voices of the Baylor Choir when they practice at the library is the highlight of my day.
What food do you miss most when away from home? I miss my mother’s beef stew with mac and cheese. She normally cooks it around Fall/Winter, and I associate this with Christmas being around the corner.

 

 

Introducing the Armstrong Browning Library’s Graduate Assistants, 2020-2021

The Armstrong Browning Library has two new Graduate Assistants this fall. They are both from Baylor University’s Masters of Arts in Museum Studies program. Through their graduate assistantships, they will gain insight into the day-to-day operations of a special collections library and the uses and importance of primary source materials. Graduate Assistants receive practical experience handling, processing, and preserving rare books and manuscripts. Additionally, they have the opportunity to digitize materials, develop and install exhibits, and prepare and participate in delivering instruction sessions for classes utilizing Armstrong Browning Library materials.

Rachel Jacob

Rachel Jacob

Rachel Jacob

Hometown: Coming from a military family, I have lived in a lot of places but do not have a proper hometown. During the four years of my undergraduate studies, I lived in Northwest Arkansas and grew to consider that home.
Why are you completing an MA in Museum Studies? I am passionate about history and hope to use my MA in Museum Studies to further preserve history and allow objects to continue telling historical truths for the coming generations.
What do you hope to learn while working at the ABL? I hope to learn about the conservation and care of rare or historical objects, so that I can use that knowledge to preserve history as the Armstrong Browning Library has preserved Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s history.
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I am excited to be working in a world-class library with such amazing facilities as the Armstrong Browning Library. I look forward to learning the inner workings of a library and museum doing so much historical preservation and providing so many research opportunities.
What food do you miss most when away from home and why? My mother makes absolutely delicious homemade chicken nuggets and I always miss them when I am away from home.

 

Joy Siler

Joy Siler

Joy Siler

Hometown: Arlington, Texas
Why are you completing an MA in Museum Studies? I have a strong passion for the field of public history. I believe in its mission and what it does for academia, preservation, and public education alike. I am pursuing this degree so that I may have the various knowledge, training, and qualifications necessary to work in multiple museum contexts and positions.
What do you hope to learn while working at the ABL? By working at the ABL, I hope to gain critical professional experience and expand my skill set for working with collections of various rarities. This position will also help me to understand the day-to-day tasks needed to run a full-functioning museum and library–a unique combination that I believe would interest me as a career choice.
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? My personal interest in the type of collections that the ABL holds, and the era that their mission focuses on interpreting, makes me very excited to have this opportunity! The building itself is a gorgeous example of the dedication that its patrons have had for celebrating the Brownings and their contextual influences in literature, on 19th-century society, and beyond. Learning about that context while working with the collections is an adventure that I am definitely looking forward to!
What food do you miss most when away from home and why? I miss my mom’s homemade lasagna the most! It was a childhood favorite and I always asked for her to make it on my birthday every year. It is still one of my favorite foods and I can always eat a ton of it!

 

 

Introducing the Armstrong Browning Library’s Student Hosts, 2020-2021

At the Armstrong Browning Library, Student Hosts, play an important role in the day to day operations of the library. They are the first point of contact for visitors to the library, and one of their chief responsibilities is to be friendly and welcoming to guests. Additionally our Student Hosts are expected to acquire a working knowledge of the building, the ABL’s history, the collections, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning so they can answer guests questions and give tours. This year’s Student Hosts are listed below. Please greet them as you enter the Armstrong Browning Library and feel free to (gently) quiz them.

Bailey Havis

Bailey Havis

Bailey Havis

Hometown: Ingram, Texas
Major: Psychology
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I am looking forward to being back at ABL because of the community I have built with my coworkers and the beautiful architecture!
What food do you miss most when away from home? When I am away from home, I miss my mom’s Mexican casserole and my dad’s steak!

Andrew Lindbloom

Andrew Lindbloom

Andrew Lindbloom

Hometown: Scottsdale, Arizona
Major: Anthropology
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I am looking forward to learning about Robert Browning, as well as sharing some of that acquired knowledge with visitors, scholars, and fellow students.
What food do you miss most when away from home? I will miss my family’s cooking which varies from traditional Mexican, Italian, and recently Middle Eastern cuisine.

Karina Macias

Karina Macias

Karina Macias

Hometown: Waco, Texas
Major: Entrepreneurship
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? I am thrilled to be working in a space that shares the beauty of literature and poetry, and I am excited to give tours in such a beautiful and historically fascinating place as this!
What food do you miss most when away from home? Since I am originally from Mexico, I can truly say that nothing beats good enchiladas and homemade churros!

Allison Pettit

Allison Pettit

Allison Pettit

Hometown: Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Major: Public Health
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? Being able to share the splendor of Armstrong-Browning that I first experienced when I was a freshman
What food do you miss most when away from home? Fried shrimp, because there’s nothing like freshly caught Gulf Coast shrimp!

Allie Pfleghaar

Allie Pfleghaar

Allie Pfleghaar

Hometown: Murphy, Texas
Major: Anthropology
What are you looking forward to about working in the ABL? Just being in such a serene, beautiful building each week!
What food do you miss most when away from home? Any of my mom’s cooking–she is the best cook!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Armstrong Browning Library Expands Study Spaces

For Fall 2020, the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) has temporarily added additional tables and seating to the Hankamer Treasure Room and the Cox Reception Hall.

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In order to return (and hopefully keep) students, staff, and faculty on campus this fall, Baylor University has implemented a number of health and safety measures. Part of these efforts include reducing building and room capacity. At the Armstrong Browning Library this means we have fewer seats available for students studying in the John Leddy-Jones Research Hall.

To help alleviate the loss of dedicated study space in the Research Hall, the ABL has added 5 tables with 9 chairs to the Hankamer Treasure Room on our main floor. In the Cox Reception Hall, on the ground floor, we have brought in 3 tables with 9 seats as well.

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As the semester gets underway we hope students will take advantage of these additional study spaces to help practice social distancing. And do not forget that while we might not have electrical outlets in our walls and floors, we do have portable chargers which you can borrow from the main floor office.

Researching at the Armstrong Browning Library, Fall 2020

The Armstrong Browning Library’s collection materials will (again) be available to readers in the third-floor Belew Scholars’ Room beginning August 24th. Baylor University’s procedures and practices for the COVID-19 pandemic apply to all individuals in the Armstrong Browning Library. At this time the capacity of the Belew Scholars’ Room is 3 researchers. Individuals needing to access collection materials in the Belew Scholars’ Room will be accommodated on a first-come, first-served basis.  To schedule an appointment and reduce wait time for materials, readers are encouraged to email, abl_office@baylor.edu, at least 48 hours before their visit to request the materials they expect to use.

ABL Belew Scholars' Room

ABL Belew Scholars’ Room

We are currently asking readers to complete the “Application for Use of Research Materials” prior to arriving at the Armstrong Browning Library and encouraging applications along with a copy of a photo ID to be submitted electronically (.jpg and .pdf files recommended) to: abl_office@baylor.edu.

Adaptations to the Armstrong Browning Library’s “Regulations for Use of Research Materials

1. Researchers should not enter the Library Services Center. They should show photo ID and tell the Library Services Assistant their name, so that the Library Services Assistant can sign-in the reader.

2. Readers are encouraged to email, abl_office@baylor.edu, at least 48 hours before their visit to request the collection materials they expect to use.

6. When leaving the Belew Scholars’ Room, researchers must notify the Library Services Assistant who will sign-out the reader, unlock the researcher’s locker, and either remove materials to quarantine area or unlock the holds cabinet so that readers can place the materials they wish to place on hold inside the cabinet.

* Researchers must leave their masks on while in the Belew Scholars’ Room (even if they are the only person present).

Armstrong Browning Library’s Adaptations to Collections Access

  • Hand sanitizer is available in the Belew Scholars’ Room near the public computers and the reference collection.
  • Researchers may request materials via email: abl_office@baylor.edu rather than filling out call slips.
  • Materials will be pulled twice daily, at approximately 10am and 2pm (depending on staff availability).
  • Materials pulled and delivered using gloves.
  • After use by reader, materials will be quarantined for 3 days before they will be re-shelved or available for use by another reader.
  • Only the Library Services Assistant will unlock and lock (touch the keys and handles of) lockers and the holds cabinet.

Virtual research assistance is available via email for individuals unable to visit the Belew Scholars’ Room.

Browning Day Celebration Deferred

The Armstrong Browning Library annually holds a Browning Day Program to celebrate the lives and works of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This year out of concern for our community we will not host a gathering. We are disappointed to have to wait to hear from our anticipated speaker, internationally recognized artist, writer, and scholar Barbara Neri, on “Creating Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Lace, Silk and Velvet: The Poetry and Politics of Her Fashionable Photographs” but are grateful that she has agreed to return at a “to be determined” date. In the meantime you can learn about Ms. Neri and her work from her website and in the upcoming issue of the Baylor ITS & Libraries Magazine.

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We miss you all and look forward to the day when we can welcome you back into the Armstrong Browning Library.

The Lakeside Browning Club Visits the Armstrong Browning Library

On January 21st the Lakeside Browning Club of Dallas, Texas came to the Armstrong Browning Library for a tour and luncheon. The purpose of their visit was to see in person the items purchased with the generous gift they made to the Armstrong Browning Library last year in anticipation of the Club’s 100th anniversary in 2023.

The Lakeside Browning Club

The Lakeside Browning Club in the Armstrong Browning Library’s McLean Foyer of Meditation.

In 1923, Ella Caruthers Porter founded the Lakeside Browning Club. In its early years the club met every Tuesday during the spring and fall months to discuss “literary, economic, social and civil topics.” Nearly all of these discussions were tied to Robert Browning’s poetry. The members also actively undertook philanthropic activities such as funding scholarships and donating books to the libraries of secondary schools and higher education institutions. Today the club meets monthly and continues its intellectual and philanthropic pursuits.

The Club’s recent gift to the Armstrong Browning Library provided the funds necessary to purchase a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems Before Congress, a small collection of political poems written in support of the unification of Italy. This particular copy belonged to Charles Dickens and bears his bookplate on the front pastedown endpaper along with a label reading “From the Library of Charles Dickens, Gadshill Place, June, 1870.”

Club members also made possible the purchase of a manuscript in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s hand of her poem “The King’s Gift,” which was first published after Barrett Browning’s death in the American newspaper the Independent. The poem, which is about Teresa Garibaldi (1845-1903), the daughter of Italian General Guiseppe Garibaldi, was published again in her Last Poems in 1862.

Both rare items are now available for use in research and classroom instruction.

The Lakeside Browning Club on Tour

The Lakeside Browning Club members view their gift on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room while on their tour of the Armstrong Browning Library.

The Lakeside Browning Club has long been a supporter of the Armstrong Browning Library. In 1951, the Club gave a mahogany and green velvet folding chair that belonged to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning during their residence in Casa Guidi to the Library.

The John-Leddy Jones Research Hall, the Library’s bronze doors, and the statue of “Pippa” in front of the Library also have ties to members of the Lakeside Browning Club and their families. The stained-glass window illustrating Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” was given to the Library by alumnae of the Cocke School of Expression in honor of Mrs. A. A. Cocke, a long-time leader of the Lakeside Browning Club.

The following club members contributed to their group’s gift:

Mrs. Robert Black 

Ms. Katherine L. Blair 

Mrs. Robert Blanshard 

Ms. Kathryn Bond 

Mrs. Charles Scott Burford, Sr. 

Mrs. D. Harold Byrd, Jr. 

Mrs. Byron W. Cain, Jr. 

Mrs. John R. Castle, Jr. 

Mrs. Geoffrey Crowley 

Mrs. E. James Cundiff, II 

Mrs. David C. Dick 

Mrs. Robert Dyer 

Mrs. Robert H. Engstrom 

Mrs. Donald F. Finn 

Mrs. Robert R. Fossum 

Mrs. Wilson Fry 

Ms. Barbara E. Gary  

Mrs. G. Hawkins Golden, II 

Mrs. John R. Guittard 

Mrs. Daniel Hennessy 

Mrs. David Hudnall 

Mrs. Stephen P. Huff 

Mrs. Allen Huffhines 

Mrs. George E. Hurt, Jr. 

Mrs. Phillip Gray John 

Mrs. William B. Kendrick, III 

Mrs. Hugh D. King 

Dr. Cheryl Cox Kinney 

Mrs. Steve Linder 

Ms. Pat Mittenthal 

Mrs. Wanderley Oliveira 

Mrs. James Paschal 

Mrs. Michael C. Petty 

Mrs. Richard Rathwick 

Mrs. Jerry Ridnour 

Ms. Kathey Roberts 

Mrs. Peter H. Roe 

Mrs. Michael Rogers 

Mrs. Douglas M. Simmons 

Mrs. John R. Sloan 

Mrs. Sam Stollenwerck 

Mrs. Lawrence Svehlak 

Mrs. Richard Trimble 

Mrs. Gary S. Utkov  

 

A Tale of Two Roberts: My ABL Journey (it’s just beginning….)

By Lesa Scholl, Ph.D., Head of Kathleen Lumley College, University of Adelaide, Australia

When I was preparing to come to the Armstrong Browning Library for my three-month fellowship, I had a range of plans that involved book proposals, chapter drafts, and well-thought-out structures for the research I was going to do. Previous experience should have warned me otherwise. I should have known that my project would become, in the words of Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, “quite exploded”—in the best possible way.

I first visited the ABL in April 2017, when I was primarily using the Nineteenth-Century Collection to examine Anglican pamphlets and tracts that engaged with the Eucharist and the way they talked about poverty, hunger, and social justice. On my last day in the library, I happened upon a particular pamphlet: Remarks on Fasting, and on the Discipline of the Body: In a Letter to a Clergyman. By A Physician (1848).

Title page of 'Remarks on Fasting'. The work was published anonymously by Rivingtons in 1848.

‘Remarks on Fasting’ was published anonymously by Rivingtons in 1848.

This pamphlet intrigued me, primarily because it was a medical doctor writing to a clergyman, not to speak against the practice of fasting, but to encourage appropriate ways in which to fast: ways that would promote bodily and spiritual health. He also gives a fascinatingly detailed description of what an appropriate diet ought to be—although he loses me when he tries to get me to refrain from coffee!

Pages 10 and 11 of Remarks details what the physician deems a regular diet so that one can ascertain whether they are eating too much or too little.

Pages 10 and 11 of Remarks details what the physician deems a regular diet so that one can ascertain whether they are eating too much or too little.

The discovery of this pamphlet led to my current book project, Fasting and Wasting: Religion, Nutrition, and Social Responsibility in Victorian Britain, which I’ve been working on during my semester at the ABL this year. Although I’d taken notes from the pamphlet, and had given papers relating to it since 2017, I was really excited to be able to hold it in my hands again. In this second full reading, I felt prompted to look at a particular text that it referenced. As I read Robert Wilson Evans’s The Ministry of the Body (1847), I realized that this was the text to which Remarks was responding: it was published in the previous year, also by Rivingtons, who had published Remarks, and my doctor-author was not only extremely flattering in his citations of Evans’s work, he proceeded to critique every criticism on fasting that the clergyman had presented! A doctor defending fasting to a clergyman—offering to teach the clergyman how to teach his flock to fast appropriately—isn’t exactly the expected trajectory.

I had found my clergyman, but my doctor continued to elude me. It took a number of Baylor librarians, the Wellcome Library, the Medical Heritage Library, the Royal College of Surgeons Library, the Lambeth Palace Library, and the National Library of Wales to find my answer: another Robert. Robert Bentley Todd, MD, one of the founders of King’s College Hospital in London, was identified.

Lambeth Palace Library’s second edition of Remarks includes a nineteenth-century pencil annotation on the title page that attributes the pamphlet to R.B. Todd, M.D.

Lambeth Palace Library’s second edition of Remarks includes a nineteenth-century pencil annotation on the title page that attributes the pamphlet to R.B. Todd, M.D.

That Todd was the doctor is almost too good to be true. His career and his religious faith, and his determination to include religious training in the training of medical students, fulfilled the desire I had to make his pamphlet one of the centerpieces of my project. The question remains as to why such a prolific writer and influential figure chose to write the pamphlet anonymously. While I haven’t ascertained this answer fully, I suspect it was because it was well-known that Todd was good friends with John Henry Newman from his Oxford days, and it had only been three years since Newman’s extremely controversial conversion to the Roman Church. Given that Newman was also known for his more ascetic religious practices, including extreme fasting, and Todd’s own High Church persuasion, having the pamphlet signed may have influenced the readership to smell the dangers of popery. In fact, Todd was known to be deeply critical of extreme fasting, and, as his pamphlet details, held to fasting as food restriction more than complete abstinence—a stance that resonated with Todd’s and Newman’s fellow Oxfordian, Edward Bouverie Pusey’s attitude toward fasting in Tracts for the Times. Indeed, the reduction of portions rather than complete abstinence was seen as a way to prevent gluttony and intemperance at the end of the fast, and was believed to be more difficult than abstinence.

With my two Roberts—Evans and Todd—at the helm, my research over the semester stretched out into the conversations that were occurring between medical doctors and theologians within nineteenth-century Britain, and the way in which these conversations impacted understandings of social responsibility and public health, as well as spiritual and moral wellness. The ABL introduced me to many sources I hadn’t encountered before, such as the multivolume Bridgewater Treatises (a collection of books written by theologians and medical scientists on the natural sciences as evidence of the glory and power of God manifest in the earth) and the Rivington Theological Library, both of which revealed the deep connections of thought and ethos between medicine and religion in the Victorian period.

The conversation became, as I should probably have expected, much larger and more exciting than I had anticipated. I had the opportunity to bring the materials together in a preliminary way at the ABL’s Benefactor’s Day, where I presented on Healthy Bodies, Healthy Souls: 19th-Century Medicine, Religion, and Literature.

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The ABL’s collection of materials on Alice Meynell and Christina Rossetti aided me in this as well, particularly in accessing Rossetti’s theological texts. This process made me rethink again the structure of my project: I didn’t want it to seem like the women were writing the light literary material while the men wrote the serious medical and theological texts. Rossetti was, in fact, taken quite seriously as a theologian in the nineteenth century, although that was an unusual role for women of the time. (She also happened to be treated by Queen Victoria’s doctors, but that’s a story for another day!)

The majority of the research I’ve been doing at the ABL has engaged with the way in which nineteenth-century doctors and theologians were thinking about the relationship between the body and the soul, and the way that then relates to the social body: how does our impetus to care for our physical bodies affect the way we think about the bodies around us? Are we too spiritual, too busy seeking God alone through prayer and fasting, to notice His presence in the poor bodies in our streets? That question was the crux of the nineteenth-century debate on the role of fasting in the Church. Many thinkers, both scientific and religious, in ways worth pondering in our own age of excess, saw a place for fasting that was both spiritually edifying, but focused outward toward the community: fasting to sympathize and understand; fasting to curb luxury and self-indulgence in an age of excessive consumerism when so many were starving; and, perhaps most importantly, in the words of Pusey, “to give to the widow, or the poor, the amount of that which thou wouldest have expended upon thyself.”

 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

From the Illustrated London News, December 1848, in the Rare Periodicals Collection of the Armstrong Browning Library. This illustration depicts Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.

From the Illustrated London News, December 1848, in the Rare Periodicals Collection of the Armstrong Browning Library

For this year’s Christmas card the Armstrong Browning Library selected an image from the December 1848 issue of the Illustrated London News. Our chosen image depicts Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. This image popularized the German tradition of decorating trees inside the home at Christmas time in Great Britain.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you from your friends at the Armstrong Browning Library

The inside message of our Christmas card.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to our blog readers!

We look forward to continuing to share the Armstrong Browning Library’s happenings with you in 2020.

 

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Things Not Shown

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

Things Not Shown: What Didn’t Make It into the Exhibit

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds a first edition of Matthew Arnold’s New Poems, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Dover Beach.” Hardly an argument for religion’s advocacy for ecological care, “Dover Beach,” provides a sobering counterpoint to many of the texts displayed in this fall’s exhibition, “‘Every common bush afire with God: Divine Encounters with the Living World.” While most of the exhibition’s writers and artists advocate for creation care because of nature’s participation in the grace and presence of God, Arnold’s poem argues the reverse. Rather than being “afire with God,” the natural world is empty of divine purpose or presence:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. (113)

Arnold’s image of the “Sea of Faith…Retreating” represents for many what religious faith in the nineteenth century looked like. In the face of scientific and industrial progress, little room was left for the mystery of a divine Creator.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

But other writers not only held to their Christian faith; they were moved by it to care for the world around them and create art and poetry that reflected that world’s beauty, fragility, and dignity. One could argue that Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledges Arnold’s perspective in A Drama of Exile. Written as a theatrical narrative of Adam and Eve, A Drama of Exile explores the broken relationship between nature and humanity as a consequence of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At one point, Eve laments her separation from nature, remembering what she had been in the Garden:

…was I not, that hour,

The lady of the world, princess of life,

Mistress of feast and favour? Could I touch

A rose with my white hand, but it became

Redder at once? (72-73)

In sinlessness, Eve’s presence made nature more fully itself—the roses more red, the grass more green, the leaves of the trees more quivering with life, the birdsong more glad. In turn, she was more herself as well, more “princess of life, / Mistress of feast and favour.” Eve’s separation from God places her at odds with the natural world, limiting its capacity to communicate divine grace.

It is precisely because of this distance that poets like Barrett Browning must remind us through their poetry that nature has its own unique relationship with God, and that the common material of the world around us is also more than material. The distance incurred by the fall keeps God’s presence in the ordinary world from being self-evident. In her introduction to A Drama of Exile, Barrett Browning argues against those who would separate religious concerns from common life, “As if life were not a continual sacrament to man, since Christ brake the daily bread of it in His hands!… As if the word God were not, everywhere in His creation, and at every moment in His eternity, an appropriate word!” (6).

 

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

Poets like Barrett Browning who wished to speak prophetically on the state of nature in nineteenth-century imagination drew heavily on William Blake’s poetic works. Blake’s familiar poem, “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one such reminder, not only that God made the “Little Lamb,” but that “he calls himself a Lamb” (11). The poem is a gentle, childlike reminder that nature shares in God’s blessings, and that all of God’s creatures are his children—not humanity alone. God can be known and understood by humanity through his other creatures.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Much later in the century, Gerard Manley Hopkins expands beautifully on this idea in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” In it, he describes how the whole earth is “charged with the grandeur of God,” but that we fail to feel his presence because “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod” (26). This line echoes the narrative in Exodus in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the bush burning with divine presence. The ABL’s current exhibition displays Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prose novel Aurora Leigh, showing the famous passage quoted in the exhibit’s title: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes” (304). Christina Rossetti’s poem “Tread Softly,” from A Pageant and Other Poems is displayed next to Aurora Leigh, which also alludes to the Mosaic narrative: “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground. / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes, / This spot we stand on is a Paradise” (153). In Hopkins’s poem, our failure to “tread softly” is directly related to our excessive concern with false progress. We have stripped the soil of its fruitfulness and beauty through “trade” and “toil”—both consequences of the fall, like Eve’s distance from the created world—and in the process we’ve “shod” our feet as well.

Hopkins’s poem ends in confidence, however, that “nature is never spent.” Looking back with twenty-first-century hindsight, it’s difficult to have such a hope. His poem “Binsey Poplars,” featured early in the exhibition, seems more honest about the irretrievable loss of nature as a result of human carelessness and destruction. To have hope, we need to take more seriously the possibility that the “grandeur of God” lies within all of nature. We need to believe with Barrett Browning that our deepest humanity is found in recognizing our participation in the natural world, not in setting ourselves at odds with it. Until then, it’s small wonder that Arnold’s poem rings true for so many readers. We have failed to take off our shoes.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“: