Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Elizabeth Barrett Browning on taking risks

I save lines of poetry in the Notes app on my phone, interspersed with grocery lists and reminders. At first, I expected that the words would act as trail markers: One thought would lead to the next. I imagined I would reread old notes, find words that were once meaningful and see that they were no longer necessary. But I’ve realized that the opposite is true.

A little over a year ago, I saved some lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and they’re just as applicable now. She died in 1861, five years after publishing her novel-length epic poem, “Aurora Leigh” (1856), which explores the upbringing of a woman poet. Through the poem’s eponymous protagonist, Barrett Browning poses questions about art, societal roles and the right to a voice.

I saved the lines in my phone because they made me feel courageous. “I would rather take part / with God’s Dead,” Aurora Leigh proclaims, “than keep quiet here / and gather up my feet from even a step / for fear to soil my gown in so much dust. / I choose to walk at all risks.”

The protagonist, like the poem, insists on moving forward, even when her steps are uncertain — even when they’re dangerous.

I spent the past week at an eco hostel in Ecuador with a group from Boston, doing yoga and hiking. When we arrived, we were greeted by the managers, Sharon and Steven. That afternoon, Sharon and her 6-year-old daughter led us on a hike to a nearby waterfall. As the adults tested stones with our feet to make sure they wouldn’t wobble, the 6-year-old scrambled up and over a boulder in the river. While we opted for smooth footholds, she preferred stepping over steep rocks. Late in the hike, she hopped off the trail to climb down a muddy embankment beside it.

That was when she fell. Mud coated her white stretch pants and pink shirt, squeegeeing from the holes in her sandals. Her mom held her as she cried, then wrung her pants out in the river.

When we got back to the house, someone mentioned how beautiful it had been: the sight of the 6-year-old perched at the top of the boulder in flimsy sandals, the water rushing beneath her.

During quiet moments for the rest of the trip, when I wasn’t taking obvious risks like biking through a busy tunnel or jumping off of a zip-line platform, I thought about those other risks I want to take — the ones that really matter. What if I decide not to find a ‘good’ job post-graduation? What if I try in earnest to be a writer?

I don’t remember what risks I had in mind a year ago, when I first read those lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But when I read her words now, I’ll think of those sandals dripping with mud. I’ll think of how the fall was worth it, because earlier in the hike, those same sandals were poised on a rock above the river: joyful, floating.


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