Elizabeth Barrett Browning Essay - Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-1861

English poet and translator.

See also Aurora Leigh Literary Criticism and Aurora Leigh Poetry Criticism.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose accomplishments were such that she was for a time considered for the post of Britain's poet laureate, is best remembered for her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), among the most beautiful love cycles in English literature. Beloved by many readers, her poetry has nevertheless been consistently criticized for technical carelessness; recent critics, however, contend that her unconventional rhymes and loose diction were neither negligent nor haphazard, but deliberate experiments by a conscientious student of prosody. But scholars generally concur that Browning's poetry is flawed by her emphasis on passionate emotion over clear expression, and most agree that she achieved her highest poetic expression in the sonnet, whose formal structure restrained her effusiveness.

Biographical Information

The oldest of eleven children, Elizabeth Barrett was raised by an overbearing father who forbade his daughters to marry. However, he encouraged their scholastic achievement and was so proud of Elizabeth's writing ability that he privately published her first book of poetry, The Battle of Marathon, in 1820. Around this time, Elizabeth injured her spine in a riding accident and seemed doomed to a life of infirmity and confinement. The drowning death several years later of her favorite brother sent her into a deep depression that made her condition worse. Despite these adversities, she continued to study and write. In 1826 she published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, followed by a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound in 1833, both of which appeared anonymously; and in 1838, she published The Seraphim, and Other Poems, her first signed volume. All three attracted much favorable attention, and she was regarded as a serious and talented poet. From her sickroom in the family home on Wimpole Street in London, Elizabeth dedicated herself to a literary life, receiving special guests, notably Mary Russell Mitford, and corresponding frequently with various literati, among them Edgar Allan Poe, James Russell Lowell, and Thomas Carlyle, all of whom sent flattering appraisals of her poetry.

Robert Browning joined these correspondents after Elizabeth admiringly mentioned his name in a poem entitled "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Deeply moved by this tribute from a recognized poet, he responded in a letter, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett," and a few lines later, "I love you, too." Robert Browning became a frequent visitor to Wimpole Street. In 1846, ignoring Elizabeth's poor health and the disapprobation of her father, the poets eloped to Italy and settled in Pisa. Although she remained somewhat frail, Barrett Browning was invigorated by her love for her husband and for her adopted homeland, and began writing with a new passion, completing the Poems of 1844, Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Aurora Leigh (1856), among other works. Barrett Browning's triumphant emergence from the sick room, in addition to her son's birth in 1849 and the stimulating presence of her husband, inspired in her a creative energy that did not wane until her death at age fifty-five.

Major Works

Although Barrett Browning's earlier works attracted some favorable attention, The Seraphim, and Other Poems was her first work to draw a wide readership. This early period was followed by the prolonged composition of Poems and Sonnets from the Portuguese, which records the growth of love between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. She expressed her political passion for Italian liberal causes in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), but critics generally dismiss this fervent verse as reckless and overly emotional. Barrett Browning made a gentler statement in Aurora Leigh, an ambitious novel in blank verse; but, while praising the power of many passages, critics have pointed out the didacticism of her social criticism. Nevertheless, Aurora Leigh is widely read and admired and remains one of Barrett Browning's most characteristic creations, embodying both her strengths and weaknesses.

Critical Reception

In the lavish eulogies that appeared at the time of her death, Barrett Browning was called England's greatest woman poet. While her reputation has faltered somewhat over the years, she is still revered as a sonneteer and also considered a literary heroine. It has been suggested, in fact, that the overpowering Browning legend—the brilliant invalid fleeing from tyrannical father to poet-lover—has distracted critics from the merits of her work. Her unorthodox rhyme and diction, often scorned, have been cited as daring experiments that prefigured the techniques of George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, through them, modern poets. Her candid treatment of political and social issues, too, was bold for her time. While her talent is perhaps best revealed within the confines of the sonnet, there is much to be appreciated in Browning's unrestrained poetic imagination.

Criticism

Helen Cooper (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Working into Light: Elizabeth Barrett Browning," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 65-81.

[In the essay that follows, Cooper considers Browning's portrayal of the patriarchal literary tradition and her criticisms of women's complicity in their own oppression.]

A year after the publication of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems of 1844, which established her as Britain's foremost woman poet, she was painfully aware of the absence of foremothers:1

. . . England has had many learned women, not merely readers but writers of the learned languages, in Elizabeth's time and afterwards—women of deeper acquirements than are common now in the greater diffusion of letters; and yet where were the poetesses? The divine breath . . . why did it never pass, even in the lyrical form, over the lips of a woman? How strange! And can we deny that it was so? I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none. It is not in the filial spirit I am deficient, I do assure you—witness my reverent love of the grandfathers!2

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Words-worth: British poetry embodied four hundred years of male practice of the art. Unlike Arthur Quiller-Couch, who describes how Britain nurtured the men who became its major poets—claiming a university education as a virtual prerequisite for "poetical genius"—Barrett Browning never formulated a penetrating political or social analysis of the factors contributing to the absence of great women poets. However, in letters of 31845 she demonstrates some ambivalence over this issue. To Robert Browning she confesses:

.. . let us say & do what we please & can . . there is a natural inferiority of mind in women—of the intellect. . not by any means, of the moral nature— & that the history of Art . & of genius testifies to this fact openly. . . .

Seeming "to justify for a moment an opposite opinion," her admiration for George Sand undercuts this:

Such a colossal nature in every way—with all that breadth & scope of faculty which women want—magnanimous, & loving the truth & loving the people—and with that "hate of hate" too. . . .4

In the same year she admits to a Miss Thompson,who had solicited some classical translations for an anthology:

Perhaps I do not . . . partake quite your 'divine fury' for converting our sex into Greek scholarship. . . . You . . . know that the Greek language . . . swallows up year after year of studious life. Now I have a 'doxy' . . . that there is no exercise of the mind so little profitable to the mind as the study of languages. It is the nearest thing to a passive recipiency—is it not?—as a mental action, though it leaves one as weary as ennui itself. Women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.5

It is not women's "natural inferiority of mind" that hinders them, but their training into a "passive recipiency." Such a mental state is incompatible with the active thinking necessary for a poet.

Deprived of "grandmothers," Barrett Browning energetically explored what it meant to be a woman poet writing out of a male tradition, in which she was thoroughly self-educated. In 1857 she formulated a clear statement of the material appropriate to the woman poet when she challenged the critical reception to her discussion of prostitutes in Aurora Leigh:

What has given most offence in the book . . . has been the reference to the condition of women in our cities, which a woman oughtn't to refer to . . . says the conventional tradition. Now I have thought deeply otherwise. If a woman ignores these wrongs, then may women as a sex continue to suffer them: there is no help for any of us—let us be dumb and die.6

The "conventional tradition" allowed to early nineteenth-century women poets is exemplified by the works of two of the most popular of them, Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) and Letitia Landon (1802-1838). In the preface to The Venetian Bracelet (1829), Landon justifies "Love as my source of song":

I can only say, that for a woman, whose influence and whose sphere must be in the affections, what subject can be more fitting than one which it is her peculiar province to refine, spiritualise, and exalt? I have always sought to paint it self-denying, devoted, and making an almost religion of its truth. . . 7

Hemans's rage at the condition of women's lives is carefully controlled. Writing on "Evening Prayer at a Girls' School," she encourages the girls to enjoy the present, for

Her lot is on you—silent tears to weep,
And patient smiles to wear through suffering's hour,
And sumless riches, from affection's deep,
To pour on broken reeds—a wasted shower!
And to make idols, and to find them clay,
And to bewail that worship,—therefore pray!

. . . . .

Meekly to bear with wrong, to cheer decay,
And oh! to love through all things,—therefore pray!

Hemans's advice bristles with ambivalence. The contempt surfacing for "broken reeds" and "clay idols" that waste women's energy is undercut by the resignation of the last two lines. Landon and Hemans see self-denial and suffering, a woman's natural duty, as their subject matter. Barrett Browning grew to realize the abuse of women as her material, believing that the world may be made finer for women through their unflinching concern for one another. Refusing to be contained within boundaries prescribed as "woman's sphere," she interpreted the woman poet's special subject matter as being anything and everything which honestly illuminates her life.

Not only did Barrett Browning reject any limitation on the content of women's poetry, she also insisted on a rigorous assessment of women's work:

The divineness of poetry is far more to me than either pride of sex or personal pride. . . . And though I in turn suffer for this myself—though I too . . . may be turned out of "Arcadia," and told that I am not a poet, still, I should be content, I hope, that the divineness of poetry be proved in my humanness, rather than lowered to my uses.8

This standard is revolutionary, for the "poetesses" had always been judged by very different criteria from their male counterparts. H. T. Tucker aptly demonstrates this:

The spirit of Mrs. Hemans in all she has written is essentially feminine. . . . She has thrown over all her effusions, not so much the drapery of knowledge or the light of extensive observation, as the warm and shifting hues of the heart.9

Tucker exemplifies a criticism purporting to speak highly of women's work while in fact condemning it. To avoid recognizing her language as overly sentimental and vague as he would that of a male poet, he praises the "warm and shifting hues of the heart" and exonerates her from lacking "the drapery of knowledge or the light of extensive observation."

To realize her aesthetic Barrett Browning took the idea of excellence from, yet resisted the domination of, the male poetic tradition. Increasingly she absorbed a woman's culture: her letters are peppered with references to Hemans, Landon, and other women poets, to Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, George Sand, Mrs. Gaskell, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Harriet Martineau and Margaret Fuller, and to the young American sculptor Harriet Hosmer. She probes their work, their assessment of themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, creating for herself a network of support while systematically breaking through the limiting proprieties ascribed to women poets.

Informing this sense of community was the memory of the love between herself and her mother, who died suddenly away from home in 1828 when Barrett Browning was twenty-two. Three years later she records in her diary:

How I thought of those words "You will never find another person who will love you as I love you"—And how I felt that to hear again the sound of those beloved, those ever ever beloved lips, I wd barter all other sounds & sights—that I wd in joy & gratitude lay down before her my tastes & feelings each & all, in sacrifice for the love, the exceeding love which I never, in truth, can find again.10

The relationship between Barrett Browning and Ed-ward Moulton Barrett, her father, has become legend, but the love between the poet and Mary Graham-Clarke, her mother, has been ignored by critics. Certainly her father educated her from the full bookcases in his study and was intensely a part of her adult life. However, the education the young poet received from her mother about the nurturing power of love between women also needs exploration and documentation, for it is this that resonates through such poems as her sonnets to George Sand and Aurora Leigh.

By the age of twelve Barrett Browning had read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Taplin, her biographer, records her reading in 1828 in The Literary Souvenir:

. . . a sentimental poem by Miss Landon called "The Forsaken," which represented the lament of a country girl whose lover had left her to look for city pleasures. Elizabeth thought the verses were "beautiful and pathetic." She was also much affected by a poem by Mrs Hemans—it "goes to the heart," she wrote—describing the death of a mother and her baby in a shipwreck.11

Yet her second book, An Essay on Mind, privately published in the same year, bears the unmistakable imprint of Pope's style:

Since Spirit first inspir'd, pervaded all,
And Mind met Matter, at th' Eternal call—
Since dust weigh'd Genius down, or Genius gave
Th' immortal halo to the mortal's grave;

and so on for more than a thousand lines.

The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) and Poems of 1844 were Barrett Browning's first widely published volumes and the first in which a new sense of herself as a woman poet emerged. The latter especially brought good reviews:

Mr. Chorley, in the "Athenaeum," described the volume as "extraordinary," adding that "between her poems and the slighter lyrics of the sisterhood, there is all the difference which exists between the putting-on of 'singing robes' for altar service, and the taking up lute or harp to enchant an indulgent circle of friends and kindred."12

"The Seraphim" (1838) and "The Drama of Exile" (1844) are both long dramatic poems, influenced by Milton's work. "A Vision of Poets" (1844) and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (1844), both about poets, seem traditional because the writers are male. In each case, however, the writer's vision is clarified through interaction with a strong and intelligent woman. In the former the woman specifically instructs the poet as to his true function. Although the poet is not yet identified as a woman, as she will be ten years later in Aurora Leigh (1856), this is a radical departure from male tradition, where the woman's function is not to know about poetry but to "inspire" the poet from afar through her beauty or to seduce him away from his work.

Barrett Browning was certain of her dedication to poetry:

I cannot remember the time when I did not love it—with a lying-awake sort of passion at nine years old, and with a more powerful feeling since. . . . At this moment I love it more than ever—and am more bent than ever, if possible, to work into light . . not into popularity but into expression . . whatever faculty I have. This is the object of the intellectual part of me—and if I live it shall be done. .. . for poetry's own sake . . . for the sake of my love of it. Love is the safest and most unwearied moving principle in all things—it is an heroic worker.13

To this poet love is not self-denial and resignation, but a powerful energy source for the transformation of vision into poetry. Sloughing off the male mask in "The Soul's Expression" (1844), she describes forcefully her own creative process:

With stammering lips and insufficient sound
I strive and struggle to deliver right
That music of my nature, day and night
With dream and thought and feeling interwound,
And inly answering all the senses round
With octaves of a mystic depth and height
Which step out grandly to the infinite
From the dark edges of the sensual ground.
This song of soul I struggle to outbear
Through portals of the sense, sublime and whole,
And utter all myself into the air:
But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul.

Her determination to "work into light" necessitates the "stammering lips and insufficient sound" with which she struggles to "deliver right / That music of my nature." Her vision comes through her senses, as she seeks transcendence to "step out grandly to the infinite / From the dark edges of the sensual ground." As a woman trained to a "passive recipiency," she experiences the active energy of creativity as potentially destructive. Compelled to deliver the "music of my nature," she fears to give herself totally to her imagination "and utter all myself into the air," fears "my flesh would perish there, / Before that dread apocalypse of soul." And yet it was through the power of her imagination that she created her identity and her ability to deal with her eight-year "captivity" as a Victorian female invalid, as "The Prisoner" (1844) reveals:

. . . Nature's lute
Sounds on, behind this door so closely shut,
A strange wild music to the prisoner's ears,
Dilated by the distance, till the brain
Grows dim with fancies which it feels too fine:

"Behind this door" she responded passionately to George Sand's novels, and her sonnet "To George Sand: A Recognition" (1844) contains a clear statement about the special nature of a woman's voice writing of women's concerns:

True genius, but true woman! dost deny
The woman's nature with a manly scorn,
And break away the gauds and armlets worn
By weaker women in captivity?
Ah, vain denial! that revolted cry
Is sobbed in by a...

(The entire section is 6414 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento," in PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 2, March, 1984, pp. 194-211.

[In the following essay, Gilbert claims that Browning's "visions of Italia Riuníta had more to do with both her femaleness and her feminism than is usually supposed, " and served as a vehicle for establishing her own poetic identity.]

Then Lady Reason . . . said, "Get up, daughter! Without waiting any longer, let us go to the Field of Letters. There the City of Ladies will be founded on a flat and fertile plain. ... "

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies 16...

(The entire section is 13475 words.)

Angela Leighton (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'No name . . . My father! more belov'd than thine !': The Daughter's First Muse," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Sue Roe, Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 23-54.

[In the following essay, Leighton examines the role of Browning's father in both her early poetry, in which he is a central figure, and her mature poetry, in which he is conspicuously absent.]

For 'neath thy gentleness of praise,
My Father! rose my early lays!
And when the lyre was scarce awake,
I lov'd its strings for thy lov'd sake;
Woo'd the kind Muses—but the while
Thought only how to win thy smile—
...

(The entire section is 10066 words.)

Deborah Byrd (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet," in Browning Institute Studies, Vol. 15, 1987, pp. 23-41.

[In the essay that follows, Byrd explores Browning's poetry as a protest against patriarchy and an attempt to establish a feminist literary community.]

The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego)—who always regards the self as the essential—and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential. (Simone de Beauvoir xxxiv)

The name [of poet]
Is royal, and to sign it...

(The entire section is 7730 words.)

Helen Cooper (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Angel: The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838)," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist, University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 12-45.

[In the following chapter from her Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist, Cooper surveys Browning 's early literary influences and how she transformed them to establish an original voice in The Seraphim, and Other Poems.]

Heaven is dull,
Mine Ador, to Man's earth.

"The Seraphim"

The reviewer in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine who asked, "What other pretty book is this?" discovered it to be...

(The entire section is 12276 words.)

Marjorie Stone (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "A Cinderella Among the Muses: Barrett Browning and the Ballad Tradition," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 94-133.

[In the following essay, Stone evaluates the poetic innovations of Browning's ballads in the context of the Romantic ballad revival and its tradition in Victorian England.]

In their 1867 edition of Bishop Percy's folio of ballads, John H. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall picture the ballad before the Romantic revival as a 'Cinderella' among the Muses:

She had never dared to think herself beautiful. No admiring eyes ever came near her in which she might mirror herself. She had never...

(The entire section is 12053 words.)