Elizabeth Barrett Browning Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

ph_0111201521-Browning_E.jpg Elizabeth Barrett Browning Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an accomplished Greek scholar, and from her translations she learned a great deal of her own prosody. In 1833, she published a weak translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. In 1850, she included in her collected poems an entirely new and substantially improved version of the same play. “The Daughters of Pandarus,” a selection from the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), was translated for Anna Jameson’s Memoirs and Essays Illustrative of Art, Literature, and Social Morals in 1846. She modernized selections from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) for R. H. Horne’s edition of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1841. She submitted occasional translations to periodicals, such as three hymns of Gregory Nazianzen, which appeared in the Athenaeum, January 8, 1842. Browning also published a modest amount of prose criticism. Four articles on Greek Christian poets appeared anonymously in the Athenaeum during 1842. For the same journal, she published five articles (all in 1842) reviewing an anthology of English verse titled The Book of the Poets (1842). Later in the same year, she reviewed a new edition of William Wordsworth. In 1843, she reviewed R. H. Horne’s Orion: An Epic Poem in Three Books (1843) for the Athenaeum, and then she gave up literary criticism to devote more time to her poetry.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s principal biographer, Gardner Taplin, believes that “It is the quality of her life even more than her artistic achievements which will live” (The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1957). The reasons for this fact, he believes, are to be found “in her fulfillment as [a woman], in her courageous and impassioned protests against injustice to individuals and subject peoples, and in her broad, generous, idealistic, Christian point of view.” Literary critics since her time have insisted on thinking of Browning as a great woman poet, or as the Sappho of the age, or as the first woman to write a sustained sequence of sonnets. Her husband thought of her simply as having written the finest sonnets since William Shakespeare. The headnote to “Seraphim” indicates specifically that she invited comparison with Aeschylus. “A Drama of Exile” is a continuation of the Adamic drama just beyond the events described by John Milton and clearly invites comparison with him. Her sonnets can be compared with those of Petrarch, Shakespeare, Milton, and William Wordsworth. Whether she meets the measure of these models is problematical in some cases, doubtful in others. Still, her aim is consistently high and her achievement is historically substantial. She gave a strong voice to the democratic revolution of the nineteenth century; she was a vigorous antagonist of those she thought were the enemies of children, of the world’s dispossessed, and of popular government.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Explain how a consideration of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s early life rebuffs the inclination of critics to regard her as an “appendage” to her husband.

Show how Barrett Browning’s literary work is a better guide to understanding relationships between men and women than the famous romance between her and Robert Browning.

Is Aurora Leigh truly an epic? What epic traits does it exemplify?

Substantiate the assertion that Barrett Browning displayed “innovative poetics” in The Cry of the Children.

Considering the lengthy tradition of sonnet sequences before Sonnets from the Portuguese, what features of Barrett Browning’s sequence justify calling it “new and experimental”?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1988. Cooper discusses Browning’s career as an extended effort to bring about a felicitous union of her femaleness with her art. The book deals cogently with all the major work.

Dally, Peter. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait. London: Macmillan, 1989. Dally traces Browning’s feelings about her fate, family, marriage, and literary life. Beginning with Browning’s childhood regret that the family fortune grew from the slave trade, Dally records her emotional life through childhood, courtship, marriage, and life in Italy. Contains notes, a select bibliography, and an index.

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1988. This full-length biography of Browning expands readers’ understandings of her childhood years through hundreds of letters uncovered since the standard works of Dorothy Hewlett (1952) and Gardner Taplin (1957). Forster uses feminist critics in her interpretation of the long poem Aurora Leigh, which is now considered a major work. An essential chronological study. Supplemented by thirty-three illustrations, a chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Kizer, Carolyn. “Ms. Browning’s Heavy Heart: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Last Poems.” Paris Review 42, no. 154 (Spring, 2000): 210-215. An insightful discussion of one of Browning’s last...

(The entire section is 660 words.)