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Book I of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868) ends with an apostrophe of 26 lines, addressed to “lyric Love”. The passage was admired by many, including Arthur Quiller-Couch, who anthologized it in The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. It begins:

O lyric Love, half angel and half bird
And all a wonder and a wild desire,—
Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue,
And sang a kindred soul out to his face,—

Critics universally accept that “lyric Love” represents the poet’s wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example:

Conceived and planned before the tragic close of his married life, and written during the first desolate years of bereavement, [The Ring and the Book] is, more than any other of his greater poems, pervaded by his wife’s spirit, a crowning monument to his Lyric Love.

Charles Harold Herford (1905). Robert Browning.

However, the identification does not seem to be forced on the reader, or at least not by the text of book I, where the passage could be interpreted as an address to an imaginary spirit or muse of poetry.

Is there internal evidence in The Ring and the Book that makes it clear that “lyric Love” is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or is it something that we must deduce from extra-textual considerations?

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The words ‘Lyric Love’ reappear in the third-to-last line of the poem, at the end of book XII:

If the rough ore be rounded to a ring,
Render all duty which good ring should do,
And, failing grace, succeed in guardianship,—
Might mine but lie outside thine, Lyric Love,
Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised)
Linking our England to his Italy!

The last two lines refer to an epitaph written by the Italian poet Niccolò Tommaseo and inscribed on a tablet on the wall of Casa Guidi in Florence, where the Brownings lived from 1847 until Elizabeth’s death in 1861. The epitaph reads:

Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Who in a woman’s heart reconciled
A scholar’s knowledge and a poet’s spirit
And made of her verse a gold ring
Between Italy and England
This memorial placed by
A grateful Florence
1861

The reference identifies the ‘Lyric Love’ of The Ring and the Book with Elizabeth Browning via Tommaseo’s metaphor of her ‘gold ring of verse’.

Photo of Casa Guidi tablet by Robert Greenham, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

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