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Professor unearths previously unknown Browning manuscript

Sandra Donaldson's first attempt at a doctoral dissertation didn't work out, so she sought guidance on a new subject from members of her doctoral committee at the University of Connecticut.

Sandra Donaldson
Sandra Donaldson looks for a passage in one of her published annotated bibliography of commentary and criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work on Thursday afternoon in her home. Donaldson recently identified a unknown manuscript of "Sonnets from the Portuguese." Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Sandra Donaldson's first attempt at a doctoral dissertation didn't work out, so she sought guidance on a new subject from members of her doctoral committee at the University of Connecticut.

"What about Elizabeth Barrett Browning?" one asked.

"Ewww!" she said, or whatever one said back in the late 1970s to register disgust.

"I thought, 'I'm a feminist. I'm not interested in love poetry,' " Donaldson said.

But she did want to write about women, and she gave the author of "Sonnets from the Portuguese" a closer look. Who she found was an early-19th-century writer who wrote forcefully against slavery, who used poetry to engage in searching intellectual discussions about love and choices and consequences -- but had received scant scholarly attention compared with her husband and fellow poet, Robert Browning.


Thus began for Donaldson a career of study and research that has led to several publications, including in 1993 an annotated bibliography of Browning commentary and criticism, and a broad reputation as one of the top experts in the field.

Now, while working as general editor of the forthcoming "Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," the UND professor of English and women's studies has scored a major literary achievement: unearthing a previously unknown manuscript of "Sonnets from the Portuguese."

No other draft of the sonnets has been found, making this the earliest known manuscript of the famous sonnet sequence, she said.

The rough draft was identified in a manuscript notebook that had been sold at auction after the death in 1912 of the Brownings' only child, and it had been in private hands since then. It recently was acquired by the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, which alerted major Browning scholars, including Donaldson.

"For 90 years, it had not been seen," she said. "I wanted to see it."

From Sonnet 5

Rita Patteson, the Baylor librarian, transcribed contents of the notebook -- draft poems with words and phrases scratched out or inserted -- and sent the pages to Donaldson. As Donaldson read one draft, a section seemed out of place and a line struck her as familiar.

It didn't take her long to locate the line, somewhat altered, in Sonnet 5.


"It's in a poem that's very much about a significant time in the world and in her life," Donaldson said. "She's working out this idea of connection with another person. She's a woman thinking about love and death and how you deal with making decisions that are difficult, how you understand the implications of actions."

A common perception of Browning (by people not so familiar with her work) is that she "lolled on a couch," dreamily writing of dreamy love, Donaldson said. But in her research, the UND professor discovered "how strong a political poet she was," writing throughout her life against slavery, for example.

Browning died in 1861, just as the Civil War began.

She was often in poor health, which restricted her social activities, "but she had very good friends and was sociable within her circle." After suffering the loss of several people close to her, "she worked herself out of her grief."

Elizabeth Barrett composed "Sonnets from the Portuguese" during her courtship with Robert Browning. They had never met when he sent her a letter in 1845, writing, "I love your poems, Miss Barrett ... and I love you, too."

Despite that rather forward beginning, the correspondence blossomed. "It was very much an intellectual courtship, a meeting of the minds," Donaldson said. The letters "are wonderful to read, hugely exciting."

In her letters as in her poetry, Browning was realistic but also deeply philosophical, she said, and capable of writing thoughtfully about emotion, and that is why some of her students today "get" her.

"Emotion is difficult to do," she said, "because it so often comes out as sentimentality."


Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: POETRY
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