Elizabeth Barrett Browning Poetry: British Analysis
Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not think it a kindness when critics praised her as a “woman poet.” She would think it much closer to essentials if she were praised instead as a Christian poet. An evangelical of an old Victorian strain, she prized learning, cultivated Greek as the language of the Christian revelation, studied the work of the church fathers, and brought a fine intellectual vigor to the manifestly Christian ethos that shapes her work.
Like her husband, Browning suffered somewhat at the close of the nineteenth century from the uncritical applause of readers who praised the religious thought in her work merely as religious thought. A century after her death—and again like her husband—Browning began to enjoy the approbation of more vigorous critics who called attention to an element of intellectual toughness in her work that earlier critics had ignored. Now it is widely agreed that her poetry constitutes a coherent working out of evangelical principles into a set of conclusions that bear on the most pressing issues of modern times: the progress of liberal democracy, the role of militant nationalism, the ambivalence of the “woman question,” and the task of the poet in a world without decisive voices.
In each case, the resolution she works toward is a further realization of the evangelical principle of the priesthood of persons. In many evangelical thinkers, a contradiction appears at this point: The antinomian doctrine of the depravity of humankind seems to contravene the doctrine of the high efficacy of individual thought; evangelicalism has, therefore, often encouraged a strong anti-intellectual bias among its followers. Because redemption is a matter of divine grace extended to childlike faith, there is no great need for secular learning. Browning, however, worked out a reconciliation of the dilemma: Fallen men can govern themselves well by a system of checks and balances that allows the many (because it is in their interest to do so) to restrain the venality of the powerful few. This reconciliation of the evangelical paradox allowed Browning not only to affirm the great egalitarian movements of her day, but also to believe that in them history was making “progress” on an enormous, though not continuous, scale. As a result, the poet is able to maintain a rather rigorous evangelicalism that is progressive, yet is not so facile and glibly optimistic as her early readers sometimes supposed. If it is her evangelicalism that endeared her to her own age, it is her wry, even grim sense of the role that personal failures must play in any realistic expectation of progress that has interested later critics.
The Seraphim, and Other Poems
The evolution of the ideas discussed above can be traced from Browning’s first serious volume, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, to her Last Poems. The title poem of the first volume is an attempt to transform the story of Jesus’s crucifixion into a classical tragedy. She had just finished translating Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and was determined to make of Christ a hero equal in tragic significance to Prometheus. Two angels descend from heaven, attending the death of Christ. The entire perspective given to the reader is through the eyes of these two angels. The poem fails because readers never see its tragic hero; they only hear from afar three among Christ’s last sayings. Thus, Jesus never appears in the poem as a dramatic figure. It is possible, of course, that Browning was reluctant to bring Christ on stage and put fictitious words in his mouth. It seems hopeless, then, to expect that the hero will evoke the tragic empathies that Prometheus does; thus, her poem is not a genuinely tragic drama.
In her second major volume, Poems, Browning makes two important advances. The first is that her leading poem, “A Drama of Exile,” is no longer a mere account of events. Rather, there is more invention and conflict than in earlier poems: Outside the garden, surrounded by a sinister-seeming nature, Eve meets Lucifer for the first time since her fall. On this occasion she rejects him. Then, in a mystical vision, Adam and Eve see and hear the omnipotent Christ rebuking the taunting spirits of fallen nature and the pride of the triumphant Lucifer. Eve now forgives Lucifer, and Christ forgives Eve. Here, the poet ventures a dramatic representation of her views with a series of invented situations that constitute a small episode in her effort to build a poetically Christian mythology.
The second advance of this volume over her previous one is technical. It is at this point in her career that Browning begins to experiment with the sonnet. The volume contains twenty-eight sonnets on various subjects. All are Italian in form (divided between an octet and a sestet), and in all cases the first eight lines rhyme abba abba. In the last six lines, however, Mrs. Browning uses two different patterns. Some of the poems end with a cdcdcd pattern; others end cdecde. The profit to the poet is that her attempts with the sonnet force on her a verbal economy that is more rigorous than that in her earlier volumes. Petrarch, for example, brought this Italian form to its pitch of perfection, allowing himself the five rhyme values of abcd and e (two rhyme values fewer than William Shakespeare uses); Browning occasionally restricts herself to four rhyme values in a single sonnet—abcd. This practice imposes on her vocabulary even stricter limits than those imposed by either the Petrarchan or the Shakespearean form. Furthermore, the sonnets—some about grief, tears, and work, with two about George Sand—force her to be less diffuse. They force her to find the concrete image that will quickly communicate a complex feeling, rather than simply talking the feeling out as she does earlier: “Experience, like a pale musician, holds a dulcimer of patience in his hand. . . .” Her religious sentiments also are forced into sharper images: “pale-cheeked martyrs smiling to a sword.”
It is also in Poems that she includes the romance “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” which was to have significant repercussions for her. It is in this poem that she praises Robert Browning—eliciting his first letter to her—and it is here that she first attempts a theme that will not be fully realized until Aurora Leigh: that romance is plausible but handicapped in an unromantic (that is, an industrial, mercantile) age.
The last poem in the volume of 1844, though brief, is an important one in the poet’s canon. “The Dead Pan” consists of thirty-nine stanzas, each containing six lines of iambic tetrameters (which do occasionally fall into an unheroic jog-trot), together with a seventh line of four syllables acting as a refrain. The poem produces just the image necessary to give Browning’s religious thought the freshness, clarity, and invention necessary if she is to avoid mere clichés of faith in the search for an authenticating power in her poems. The subject of the poem is the ancient claim made by Plutarch (in De defectu oraculorum in Ethika, after c. 100; Moralia, 1603) that at the very hour of Christ’s crucifixion, a supernatural cry went out across the sea, “Great Pan is dead,” and that from that moment the pagan oracles lost their vision and power. In the poem, Browning utters a long roll call of the pagan deities and names them to witness that the prophetic power of an old world, mythopoeic and visionary, personified in the spirits of place—of forest, stream, and grotto—has been subsumed by a Christianity that is the...
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