Speak low to me, my Saviour, low and sweet
From out the hallelujahs, sweet and low
Lest I should fear and fall, and miss Thee so
Who art not missed by any that entreat.
Speak to me as to Mary at thy feet !
And if no precious gems my hands bestow,
Let my tears drop like amber while I go
In reach of thy divinest voice complete
In humanest affection — thus, in sooth,
To lose the sense of losing. As a child,
Whose song-bird seeks the wood for evermore
Is sung to in its stead by mother’s mouth
Till, sinking on her breast, love-reconciled,
He sleeps the faster that he wept before.
Here is a poem by a young Elizabeth Barret (before she was a Browning, I believe.) She grew up non-comforist in England, sickly, tyrranized over by a brutal and authoritarian father and without her mother for most of her life. She remained faithful to her Christian profession all her life. She and her husband Robert even spent some time in Greece, helping the Christians there with their revolution against the Turks. She was not convinced by Orthodox arguments, though she found much to agree with and was influenced by Greek poetry to some extent. Her most famous poem, after “How Do I Love Thee” is “The Greek Slave” in which she writes in praise of a monument created to publicize the cause of Greek freedom.
Here, however, all that is before her. She is a young person in need of comfort from her savior.
Albert has brought to our attention the ideas of the New Criticism. Now, I know that not everybody feels as I do, but I am deeply suspicious of anything that calls itself “the new” anything. The reason is that it seems to have been a common way of talking at a certain period in the 20th century when any group wanted to pursue the aims of some particular discipline, while cutting themselves loose from all the conventions, traditions, and accumulated wisdom of that tradition. The hubris of that idea is truly astounding to me.
Anyway, I thought this poem, besides being lovely and affecting, would be a good test-case for the claims of the New Criticism. When Browning wrote the poem, our aspartame brand “Sweet and Low” had not yet been invented.
When it was invented, did that action insert into Browning’s poem a new, ironic meaning?
Or does the sensible reader simply reject “sweet and low the aspartame sweetener” as a possible meaning and move on?
In other words, are we at the mercy of our automatic associations when reading poetry? Or do we have a hand on the helm?
In my opinion, the most obvious argument against the New Criticism is that in practice on is forced to rename the incoherence that results as “irony” and in the process is forced then to re-define irony as incoherence.
Is the aim of the New Criticism, then, incoherence? One thinks of ‘That Hideous Strength’ by C. S. Lewis.