Mary Wollstonecraft and Fuselli
by Robert Browning
O but is it not hard, Dear?
Mine are the nerves to quake at a mouse:
If a spider drops I shrink with fear:
I should die outright in a haunted house;
While for you—did the danger dared bring help—
From a lion's den I could steal his whelp,
With a serpent round me, stand stock-still,
Go sleep in a churchyard,—so would will
Give me the power to dare and do
Valiantly—just for you!
Much amiss in the head, Dear,
I toil at a language, tax my brain
Attempting to draw—the scratches here!
I play, play, practise and all in vain:
But for you—if my triumph brought you pride,
I would grapple with Greek Plays till I died,
Paint a portrait of you—who can tell?
Work my fingers off for your "Pretty well:"
Language and painting and music too,
Easily done—for you!
Strong and fierce in the heart, Dear,
With—more than a will—what seems a power
To pounce on my prey, love outbroke here
In flame devouring and to devour.
Such love has laboured its best and worst
To win me a lover; yet, last as first,
I have not quickened his pulse one beat,
Fixed a moment's fancy, bitter or sweet:
Yet the strong fierce heart's love's labour's due,
Utterly lost, was—you!
As with much of Browning's poetry, there is a detectable quantity of not-entirely-innocent irony. Henry Fuseli was a Swiss painter and writer with whom Wollstonecraft, one of whose weaknesses was falling in love with men who were hardly worth her love, fell in love. He was a misogynist, constantly making disparaging remarks about the intelligence of women, and had, as she herself recognized, a "reptile vanity". She was perfectly willing not to turn it into a sexual relationship, and he strung her along for some time, but when she actually talked to Fuseli's wife about it, Fuseli's wife was not willing to sign on to her being a third, even if Platonic, participant in her relationship with Fuseli, and Fuseli was infuriated that she had done so. Heartbroken, she fled to France, where she fell in love with someone even worse. The interesting thing in reading Wollstonecraft's comments and correspondence with respect to these love affairs is that she knew that they were problematic -- but knowing full well that the man was awful could never quite overcome the feeling that she needed to be with him.