Yesterday, while proofreading my sequel, "Mathew Franklin Whittier in his own world," I realized that I had my "smoking gun" regarding Elizabeth Barrett's plagiarism of Mathew's tribute poem to his late wife, Abby, as "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." I still haven't read that entire poem. Some of these things, where I know there has been adulteration of Mathew's work, I have a very hard time forcing myself to read. Or, I suppose, to be honest, I can feel reluctant where I'm afraid I might be proven wrong--but as far as that is concerned, what happens is that I run up against something that seems like I've been proven wrong, but it's just another wrinkle. It takes me in a slightly new direction, when there was something I had assumed incorrectly (as, for example, that Mathew shared these unpublished works with famous writers in 1843, as opposed to 1844). The things that looked as though they might threaten my entire premise, have turned out to be false alarms.
The worst blunder I ever made was to prematurely conclude that an unidentified girl in a daguerreotype was Abby. That, based on a past-life memory flash which arose when I first saw it. I should have known better, because of the date that photography became available in America--but I didn't know the history of photography at this time. As near as I can tell, what happened is that this was a girl whom Mathew had a month-long live-in relationship with, some years after his second, family-arranged marriage was over, who physically reminded him of Abby. So the past-life glimpse was accurate, as far as it went (getting dressed in close quarters), and the mistaken identity was understandable, at that early period in the research. I later discovered that Mathew had described that relationship, in caricature, in one of his "Ethan Spike" sketches. So even this embarrassing error led to a plausible confirmation. (The girl in the daguerreotype remains unidentified, but clearly Mathew did have a relationship which matches my past-life glimpse.)
The question in my mind right now is, should I share this specific stanza from Elizabeth Barrett's poem, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," or should I describe it in a general way and let people buy the book to find it quoted, therein? I know, that's petulant of me. But in this case, it's also practical.
It's practical, because the proof lies in the details, and the depth, of Mathew and Abby's respective personalities; and in the tenor of their young relationship. Without that, it won't be a smoking gun, to you. But with that additional information, it definitely is.
Here's the gist of it. There is a string of stanzas in that poem, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," describing their activities as the poet spends time with Lady Geraldine, which are manifestly original to Mathew. They are more-or-less literal, never mind that Abby was the daughter of a marquis, whose father had fled Guadeloupe during a slave uprising. In other words, Abby was literally the daughter of a marquis, but in her early teens, when their mentoring relationship began (she mentoring him, despite his being four years older), she was hardly a European "lady." This part is exaggeration; but their interaction, as described in the poem, was literal.
At the tail end of several stanzas which mostly focus on her, is one which tells us how she perceived him--how she reacted to his philosophy of life and his world view. And it is spot-on. Not only is it spot-on, but it makes a reference to the stars in heaven--and Abby was all about the stars. This is one way you can discern her original work, from Albert Pike's bastardizations of it. Where you see stars mentioned in those poems now attributed to Pike, that's Abby.
Mathew, as a young man, was a skeptic. He had studied all the great satirists of Europe and America. But he was a noble-hearted skeptic, levying his attacks on worldliness. He was, after all, a Quaker up until the time he was "disowned" by the Friends for marrying Abby, i.e., for marrying out of the faith. So as regards their spirituality, Abby was the positive pole, and Mathew the negative. Both shared idealism and spirituality; but for the most part Abby looked up to the stars, and sought to serve others; while Mathew exposed the ignorance of society through insightful satire, and urged reform.
This last stanza tells us that young Abby expressed her appreciation for Mathew's seemingly opposite modus operandi.
What this means, is that if we assume Elizabeth Barrett wrote the poem, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," we have to believe, first of all, that she adopted the man's point of view to tell the story. Perhaps there is some reason to believe that; as I write this, today, I don't know of any. But then, we have to believe that this description of the two lovers is generic, i.e., a product either of pure imagination, or of the observation of many couples in real life, and in literature. The poem was written and published before Robert Browning began courting her--in fact, ironically, as I read the history, he became attracted to her because of this poem.
The obvious explanation is staring us in the face: that it was essentially a literal reminiscence of Mathew and Abby's courtship, disguised but little via literary license, and intended as a veiled tribute. In other words, "only the names have been changed," at least in this section that Mathew originally wrote. And the proof of it is that suddenly we see a brief mention of how Abby unexpectedly appreciated Mathew's Quaker-based cynicism toward worldliness.
Remember that the Quakers wanted nothing to do with worldliness--neither worldly speech, nor dress, nor wars, nor even patriotism of country, as near as I can tell. A rebel like Mathew turned to the satirists for inspiration--but he was still deeply spiritual in his own way. This is precisely what that one stanza tells us--that even though Abby's way of expressing her spirituality was largely opposite from his, she recognized and appreciated his motives, and told him so. Instead of being opposites in conflict, they were complimentary. What is not said in these stanzas, and why it stands out, to me, is that I know Mathew actually lampooned some of her esoteric and occult beliefs during their early courtship. So what this stanza is really conveying, is that Abby expressed admiration for his sincere criticism of worldliness, despite his making fun of some of her beliefs--in other words, he is praising her generosity of spirit.
The reason this wouldn't be proof to anyone who hasn't immersed himself in Mathew's life, is that they wouldn't have the back-story--they wouldn't have any way to know just how personal this reference is. Simply reading my description, here, anyone can say, "Oh, it's a coincidence. This poem could describe any number of courting Victorian couples in that era."
Maybe so, and maybe not. But I recognized Mathew's mind, and his relationship with Abby, the instant I read the lines. You would too, if you had read my books, and understood this relationship in depth. And remember, there are other clues, as well--as for example that the poem is written precisely in Mathew's preferred style, while Barrett's style was all over the map (presumably, because she was "borrowing" from other poets). Mathew even mentions this, briefly, in his review.
Here's how he addresses this issue, in his star-signed Jan. 1, 1845 review for the New York "Tribune."* Obviously, he knows that Barrett has used the poem he sent her as a starting point for "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," leaving a good bit of the original intact. At this point, given that she is famous, he feels honored--and, he also feels sorry for her, due to her chronic illness. He takes her as a real poetic genius, who is borrowing too much from others for her own good. He is, I believe, mentioning her tendency to plagiarism "around the corner," as he is wont to do; and he is ever-so-gently encouraging her to be more original:
We hear that she has been long an invalid, and, while the knowledge of this increases admiration for her achievements and delight at the extent of the influence,--so much light flowing from the darkness of the sick room,--we seem to trace injurious results, too. There is often a want of pliant and glowing life. The sun does not always warm the marble. We have spoken of the great book culture of this mind. We must now say that this culture is too great in proportion to that it has received from actual life. The ore is not always assimilated to the new form; the illustrations sometimes impede the attention rather than help its course; and we are too much and too often reminded of other minds and other lives.
Great variety of metres are used, and with force and facility. But they have not that deep music which belongs to metres which are the native growth of the poet's mind. In that case, others may have used them, but we feel that, if they had not, he must have invented them; that they are original with him. Miss Barrett is more favored by the grand and thoughtful, than by the lyric muse.
This smoking gun that I have discovered will continue to lie there, as it has for over 180 years, until the time is ripe for its discovery. Then, like many of these things, it will be obvious. And the story of this unique relationship between Mathew and Abby will be preserved, as he wished.
Oh, something else just occurred to me. Science, and scholarship, love predictions. I haven't looked into this, but I predict that, if there are records of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's early drafts of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," that originally the character was called "Lady Juliana." Why? Because Abby played with adopting one or two names that she felt were more melodious than "Abigail" when she was a teenager, and one of these appears to have been "Juliana." My evidence for this, is that where Mathew represents Abby in various humorous stories, he often gives her variations on this name. Abby had told me directly, via spirit communication--before I began discovering these references in Mathew's work--that she had experimented with adopting other names as a young teen. But the names "Adeline" and "Juliana" come up in Mathew's work, so I conclude these were the two she liked best. Mathew uses "Juliana" to represent Abby most frequently. "Geraldine" would be only a minor modification made by Barrett. Abby wouldn't have thought it nearly so pretty, but to Barrett it would have sounded similar.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*Mathew used a single star as his one consistent secret pseudonym throughout his literary career, apparently in tribute to Abby. She must have thought of their souls as twin stars in heaven, such that after she died, he continued to sign as the remaining star.
Music opening this page: "Only You,"
theme from "Young Victoria," by Sinead O'Connor