Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.
An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (poetry) 1826
Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus and Miscellaneous Poems by the Translator [translator] (poetry) 1833
The Seraphim, and Other Poems (poetry) 1838
Poems (poetry) 1844; published in the United States as A Drama of Exile, and Other Poems, 1844
*Poems (new edition) (poetry) 1850
Casa Guidi Windows (poetry) 1851
Aurora Leigh (poetry) 1856
Poems before Congress (poetry) 1860
Last Poems (poetry) 1862
*This is a new and enlarged edition of the 1844 Poems, and contains Sonnets from the Portuguese.
(The entire section is 79 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 6414 words.)
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
Our lives are Swiss—
So still—so Cool—
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!
Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between—
The solemn Alps—
The siren Alps
Emily Dickinson, no. 80
Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus phase in the little girl's development comes to us as a surprise, comparable in another field with the discovery of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind that of Greece....
(The entire section is 13475 words.)
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—
('To My Father on His Birthday', 33-8)
The story of Mr Barrett's emotional and financial domination of his family is well known. It was not only his favourite oldest daughter, but all his eleven children who suffered from the extraordinary rigidity of his rule against marriage. There was, Elizabeth reports, a regular 'setting forth of the whole doctrine', which was a doctrine of ' "passive obedience, & particularly in respect to marriage" '. This uncompromising 'monomania' ([The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: 1845-1846, 2 vols., ed. Elvan Kintner (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969); hereafter Letters: 1845-1846], I, 408)...
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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 like a queen
Is what I dare not,—though some royal blood
Would seem to tingle in me now and then,
With sense of power and ache.
(Aurora Leigh I. 934-38)
'Tis Antidote to turn—
To Tomes of solid Witchcraft—
(Emily Dickinson, #593)
"Speed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence—these are the qualities that hold us enthralled" as we read Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, wrote Virginia Woolf in 1932 (I. 212).
As Woolf points out, these qualities emanate not so much from Aurora as from her creator, whose strong and...
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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 reviewer in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine who asked, "What other pretty book is this?" discovered it to be The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838)1 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Barrett was thirty-two; she had already written an autobiography, Glimpses Into My Own Life and Literary Character (1820)2, and published three volumes of poetry, The Battle of Marathon (1820), An Essay on Mind, With Other Poems (1826), and Poems, 1833. The Seraphim, however, was her first work both to receive a wide readership and extensive critical response, and also to represent "with all its feebleness and shortcomings and obscurities . . . the first utterance" of her "own individuality" ([The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; hereafter, L followed...
(The entire section is 12276 words.)
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 dared to think her voice sweet. . . . She met with many enemies, who clamoured that the kitchen was her proper place, and vehemently opposed her admission into any higher room. The Prince was long in finding her out. The sisters put many an obstacle between him and her. . . . But at last the Prince found her, and took her in all her simple sweetness to himself.1
Some readers might pause over the class- and gender-inflected assumptions in this ingenuous fairy story of a gallantly patronizing 'Prince' taking a low-born maiden 'to himself. But few would dispute the importance of the union Hales and Furnivall fancifully describe. Every student of Romantic poetry recognizes the profound significance of...
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Donaldson, Sandra. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography of the Commentary and Criticism, 1826-1990. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, 642 p.
Bibliography of Browning scholarship from 1826-1990, including commentary written in English, French, and Italian.
Hewlett, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Life. New York: Octagon Books, 1972, 388 p.
Detailed biography of Browning, with extensive critical discussion of her poetry.
Cunliffe, John W. "Elizabeth Barrett's Influence on Browning's Poetry." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America XXIII, No. 2 (1908): 169-83.
Argues that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "most enduring contributions to literature were not direct but indirect—through the influence she exerted on her poet-husband."
Donaldson, Sandra M. "Elizabeth Barrett's Two Sonnets to George Sand." Studies in Browning & His Circle V, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 19-22.
Examines Browning's portrayal of the "ideal person" as an androgynous combination of the masculine and the feminine.
(The entire section is 360 words.)