A shrine for the Brownings

Bronze cast of the Brownings' clasped hands,1853 by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Bronze cast of the Brownings’ clasped hands,1853 by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

When you mention the names Robert Browning or Elizabeth Barrett Browning these days, most people don’t know who these writers were, let alone what they were famous for. But toss around the following phrases, and people recognize them instantly.

  • “How do I love thee, let me count the ways,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
  • “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be,” Robert Browning, Rabbi ben Ezra
  • “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto
  • “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” Robert Browning, Pippa Passes

This poet duo was very well-known in the 19th century (their courtship was highly romantic), and they had many admirers. So it was very interesting for me to visit the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

This is not the university library but a special building completed in 1951 to house the personal collection of papers, books, and objects of Browning collector, Dr. A.J. Armstrong. Since then, it has become the go-to resource for Browning scholars and has expanded to include the collections of many other Victorian writers.

The architecture and interiors of the building are beautiful, with most every window covered in stained glass (62 of them to be exact), giving the rooms within a warm glow. The front doors are made of heavy bronze and depict themes from Robert Browning’s poetry. On entering the foyer, you see a display of his portrait, writing desk, and chair. To the right is the Leddy-Jones Research Hall, a quiet room perfect for study, and to the left is the Hankamer Treasure Room, which features exhibitions based on the library’s holdings. At the back, the McLean Foyer of Meditation serves as the shrine for the two poets, giving centre stage to a bronze cast of their clasped hands.

Since this was a library, I expected to see more books, but the self-guided tour guide said that most of them are kept in storage and can be accessed on request.