I was giving a poetry seminar earlier this week, and we got onto the subject of hair in Robert Browning’s poetry, and then, hair as a gift. I had a full text of ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ to hand, and was able to read out Elizabeth Barrett (Browning to be):
I never gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully,
I ring out to the full brown length and say
"Take it." My day of youth went yesterday;
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified, ---
Take it thou, --- finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.
One of the students in class spoke of her repugnance to cut hair, even her own on the hairdresser’s floor, seeing it as dead stuff that should be swept away out of sight. All this made me think about hair bracelets: John Donne’s ‘subtile wreath of haire, which crownes my arme’ and, more famously, that ‘bracelet of bright haire about the bone’ (‘The Funeral’ and ‘The Relique’, of course). The word ‘relics’ will tend to crop up in later references, perhaps partly because of that poem.
As a lover’s token, the bracelet of hair lasted through millenia. Here’s a disappointed lover in Mrs. Manley’s Lucius (1717):
And only I am left to speak her Falsehood;
An hated Evidence of broken Faith.
And yet some Proof remains;
[Pulls a Bracelet from his Arm.
This Bracelet's of her Hair, wove with her Hand,
Which, to the Present, gave a double Value;
View well the Clasp, see her fair Self enshrin'd,
The Altar where my constant Vows I paid:
These were the Gifts she gave me with her Heart.
Why do I still such worthless Toys retain,
When the chief Jewel is recall'd?
Why yet (as sacred Relicks of our Love)
Worship the Shrine of an apostate Fair?
Hence, vain Remembrancers of past Delight,
[Stamps upon the Bracelet and Picture.
His beloved wove it herself. But some of the surviving examples are of such extraordinary craftsmanship, that one has to wonder if a professional maker wasn’t sometimes used.
The Victoria and Albert has just one in its online collection,
but 19th century examples can be found in abundance on commercial antique jewelry sites like
(click on ‘Victorian Hair Jewelry’ in the left hand pane). My image is snipped from the
If by some sleight a Garter you have got
From her that will not love you, keep it not;
Or if you have a Bracelet of her hair,
Or any such like toy, them never wear …
Ha, ha, ha, a Bracelet of a lock of Hair,
In colour much resembling my Wives: but
Such a trick on me, were to little purpose,
I'le tangle no more there---but now I think on't,
I have found the knack; as sure as I am made
Of flesh and blood, 'tis Melvissa courts me
For her self …
I'le pleasure her desire, and wear her favour.
[Puts it on his arm.
The Devil on't, it warms the vein that leads
To the Heart strangely; and 'tis love I feel
In abundance …
I assume that it was the Victorians themselves who finally completed the transformation of an amatory token (or sign of tortured erotic remembrance) into apparatus for that favourite mode of theirs, mourning. Robin Jaffee Frank, who curated a major exhibition of American miniatures, has written about this famous miniature (‘The Dead Bride’), with its woven sample of her hair,
and explains that while hair ‘has been used to represent loss in rituals of mourning the world over’, the ingenuity of its deployments in colonial and federal
Through such extravagances, hair as a pleasing memento of a living person must gradually have become, in the main, a faintly grisly memento of the dead. Elizabeth Barrett’s sonnet captures an unexpected reversion to the former. But it took Donne to rejoice in both at once.