“These Flowers I Lay:” The Browings’ Affectionate Plants
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning used plants as a token of their love for each other and their closest friends. The presence of plants in their work also reflects a thoughtful, gentle approach to expressing love through writing.
Gardening and flowers brought Elizabeth joy. Flowers appear throughout many of her poems as well as her letters. Her dear friend and fellow writer Mary Russell Mitford shared this passion for flowers and frequently sent Elizabeth flowers from her own garden as gifts. In their correspondence, Elizabeth expresses how we can enjoy the beauty of a flowers by reading poetry
Pictured on the left is a draft of Elizabeth’s “To Mary Russell Mitford in Her Garden.” The poem (click here for more) was first published in 1838 as a part of the collection The Seraphim, and Other Poems. Elizabeth thoroughly edited the poem before adding it to her Poems (1850) as seen by her handwritten notes. Barrett Browning addresses Mitford as if she is presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. The opening lines of the draft enforce this imagery:
What time I lay these rhymes anear thy feet,
Benignant friend! I will not proudly say
As better poets use ‘These flowers I lay,’
Because I would not wrong thy blossoms sweet
By spoiling so their name.
We can also observe Elizabeth’s edits in this draft. Replacing “blossoms” with “roses,” a flower strongly associated with love, creates a specific visual to represent her affection towards Mary Russell Mitford. Notice how Elizabeth incorporates a similar action of presenting a loved one with flowers in Sonnet 44 of her acclaimed Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850):
Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden , all the summer through…
So in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back those thoughts which have unfolded too…
Elizabeth composed Sonnets from the Portuguese during the early years of her relationship with Robert, so we can imagine the personal connection she may have had with her speaker in this moment. These flowers prompt the speaker to recall the treasured memories that they share with the speaker. Elizabeth also communicates a similar sentiment through the floral imagery of her words to Mary Russell Mitford. Can you relate to gathering a “bouquet” of loving memories?
Exhibit created by Peyton Robinson
Pressed flowers, undated. Altham Collection, Browning Guide H0565.
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning exchanged flowers with their love letters during their courtship from 1845 to 1846. The flowers in this bouquet include forget-me-nots (see image at top of page for reference), pansies, and roses.
Leaf from the Garden of the Palace Lanfranchi. October 25, 1846. Altham Collection, Browning Guide H0587
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning gathered this leaf while on a trip to Pisa, Italy. The leaf comes from the garden of the Palace Lanfranchi where fellow writer Lord Byron once lived. Do you see the braided cord encircling the leaf? That is a lock of Elizabeth’s hair!
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "To Mary Russell Mitford In Her Garden."1850. Browning Guide D0997.1
This revised copy for the printer’s use offers a unique opportunity to witness Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing process. By examining Elizabeth’s handwritten revisions to the text, we can better understand her thoughts as a writer. What changes can you identify?