Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eloping Poets and Lords of Flies

Today is the anniversary of the day that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett eloped in 1846. What a thrilling story. She was older and more established. He wrote her a fan letter. They exchanged what seems today to be an extraordinary number of letters (although if you look at the writing habits of nineteenth century British people, authors and non-authors alike, it's clear that the nineteenth century may well prove to have been a golden age of letter writing, despite the high postal rates of the time). She was a semi-invalid. That fact did not deter him. He spirited her away, they married, and they moved to Italy, where they each wrote some of their most important works. She died in his arms.

For people who assure you that marriage, parenthood, or any human relationship ruins creativity, the story of the Brownings can provide comfort. Would Elizabeth Barrett Browning have written her impressive Aurora Leigh without that marriage? Would Robert Browning have done as much with the dramatic monologue without her encouragement? What would civilization look like without the line: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"?

It's also the birthday of William Golding, who is most famous as the author of Lord of the Flies. One of my high school teachers told us that he wrote the book because he couldn't find any book that neatly demonstrated the literary techniques he was trying to teach the high schoolers that he taught. Voila! And then he could stop teaching, of course.

Of course, the real story isn't quite that neat. The novel was rejected 21 times, and only stayed in print for a year or two, selling very few copies, when it was first published. But then it was reintroduced in the 60's, and has gone on to be that rare best seller that continues to be popular in high school and college classrooms.

What an influence this text has had on our popular culture. How do supposedly civilized people behave when stranded away from civilization? Golding wasn't the first to wrestle with that popular theme, but he did it so memorably. Would we have had Lost without that originating text? How would it have been different?

My favorite riff on the Lord of the Flies theme is a Simpsons episode which I'm too lazy to look up. I love that show because it's so rich with allusions, literary and otherwise. It's an English major's dream. It's one of the few shows that makes me laugh loudly and think deeply in the same show.

So, today, in honor of the Brownings, maybe I'll write a love sonnet. Maybe I'll write a dramatic monologue using the voice of some despot. In honor of Golding and the Brownings both, I'll dream of writing a creation that continues to surface in classrooms, long after I'm dead.

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