Elizabeth Barrett Browning World Literature Analysis
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a poet remembered for all the wrong reasons. Reclusive for most of her life, publicity shy, and extremely reserved, she is primarily known today as the heroine of an unbelievably romantic and public love story, Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930); a 1934 film and its 1957 remake, have also been released under that title. A serious poet aspiring to her own place in Western poetic tradition, she is regarded as the conventional love poet of Sonnets from the Portuguese who celebrates the power of conjugal love and monogamous marriage. As an advocate for women’s rights, she is seen as a mere appendage of her more famous husband. Politically conservative, born into aristocracy, and appalled by what she considered the inhumanity of modern industrial society, she has been viewed as a spokeswoman for radical political upheaval. Finally, though a woman who believed in the natural superiority of men, Barrett Browning is admired as an early proponent of equal rights for women.
These discrepancies between the person, the poetry, and the reputation are not merely the result of confusion or ignorance. Barrett Browning is an extremely difficult author, whose work is complex, experimental, and individual. Her use of poetic form to subvert poetic expectation and tradition makes her work interesting and significant but requires reflective readers and critical examination if it is to be understood. The study of her work is important for an understanding of the time in which she wrote and for her poetic achievement.
Barrett Browning was an extremely prolific author who began writing prose and poetry as a child and continued actively writing until she died at the age of fifty-five. She demonstrates a serious concern for the world around her, an unflinching ability to analyze her own feelings and motivation, a love of language, a desire to experiment and create a new poetry, and a conception of poetry as a moral force in the affairs of men and women.
Barrett Browning is also one of the first major poets to articulate the themes and concerns of Victorian England and the developing industrial world. The value of work, the awareness of alienation and human isolation, the loss of conventional religious faith, the conflict between religion and science, the function of art, the ambiguous relationship between society and nature, the conflict between free will and fate, the relationship between men and women, and the place and value of culture are subjects that absorbed Victorian writers and intellectuals. These themes are found throughout Barrett Browning’s poetry. She anticipates the emptiness and feelings of alienation expressed by Matthew Arnold; writes medieval ballads and experiments with epic and sonnet forms, as did Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; uses dramatic monologues much like Robert Browning; and addresses the political and social issues of her time, as did many of her male contemporaries. Yet she is an original, innovative poet who presents her own well-considered, informed views in a highly developed, artistic form.
Barrett Browning’s most lasting contribution to poetry and literature is her imaginative adoption of traditional poetic forms to new subject matter, her struggle and final success in establishing the female voice as a poetic possibility, her belief in poetry as a moral agent in the affairs of men and women, and her persistency in the belief that life has meaning and purpose. Poems such as “Rhyme of the Duchess May,” “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” and “Bertha in the Lane” extend the ballad form to include the ambivalent position of women rather than the traditional subject of masculine heroism. The Cry of the Children (1844), “Crowned and Buried,” and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” address the controversial topics of child labor, Napoleon I’s return from exile, and slavery. They extend the province of poetry to contemporary political issues. In Sonnets from the Portuguese, she not only adopts a form previously reserved for the male expression of love but also creates one of the most accomplished and beautiful sonnet sequences in the English language. Finally, in Aurora Leigh, she creates a successful epic poem about the struggle of a woman to achieve a life of her own on equal terms with society and men.
Barrett Browning believed that a poet was an important moral influence in the world. Accepting the Romantic vision of the poet as prophet, she appropriated the vision and resolved restoration of values destroyed by the marketplace. She saw the underside of an industrial society in the prevalence of ignorance, crime, prostitution, and exhaustion. For Barrett Browning, the poet served as the link between the everyday...
(The entire section is 1970 words.)