Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027
Article abstract: Browning was the most respected woman poet of the Victorian age. Her work is known for its formal iconoclasm, impetuosity of tone, and political content.
Elizabeth Barrett was the eldest of the eleven children of Edward Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. She grew up at Hope End, a large country house in Herefordshire. Both parents, but especially her father, encouraged her to read widely; unlike most privileged girls of her time, she was allowed free use of her father’s library and shared her brothers’ classical tuition. Her father arranged for her epic poem The Battle of Marathon (1820) to be privately published when she was fourteen.
In 1821 Elizabeth suffered a severe but unexplained illness that affected her spine and lungs and left her a semi-invalid for the rest of her life. During the 1830’s, she produced her first successful poetry: The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) was well received and gained its author considerable notice. At about the same time, her health broke down, and she traveled from London to the milder climate of Torquay to recover. During her convalescence, she begged her favorite brother Edward (“Bro”) to visit her in Torquay; while there, he drowned on a sailing excursion. Elizabeth’s grief and guilt were so overwhelming that for the rest of her life she could never speak or write of the event.
Somewhat recovered but still very much an invalid, Elizabeth returned to London in 1841 and plunged into literary work. In 1844 her popular two-volume Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning appeared. One poem in this collection, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” referred favorably to the work of then little-known poet Robert Browning. He wrote to thank her, and they began a correspondence that led to their first meeting four months later. For over a year they wrote to each other daily (sometimes twice daily). Elizabeth’s father had forbidden any of his children to marry, so Elizabeth and Robert married secretly and left for Italy in 1846. They settled in Florence, in Casa Guidi, where their son Pen was born in 1849 and where they lived for the rest of Elizabeth’s life.
During the 1840’s and 1850’s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s major works appeared, and her poetic reputation reached its height. Her 1844 Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning contain multiple voices, styles, and subjects. She experiments boldly with form, especially half-rhymes, metrical irregularities, neologisms, compound words, and lacunae. These experiments at once pleased, intrigued, infuriated, and disturbed her contemporary readers. More recently, they have been seen (by Virginia Woolf and others) as formative influences on later poets and harbingers of literary modernism.
In 1850 Browning published a collection of her poetry, including the 1844 poems plus some new material such as the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese, written secretly to her husband during their courtship. These poems are by far her most well known, less for any intrinsic artistic excellence than for their abiding romantic and psychological portrait of developing love. They trace the emotional state of the poet—a thirty-nine-year-old invalid wooed by a younger man—from surprise, reluctance, and confusion to passion, trust, and hope for the future.
In addition to the sonnets, the 1850 Poems includes two poems focused on social issues. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” is an impassioned first-person poem in which a slave murders her own child, who was conceived as a result of rape by her white master. “The Cry of the Children” protests the inhumane conditions for child laborers in British coal mines and factories. Not only did these poems provoke a powerful response from socially conscious readers, but they also anticipated the overtly political concerns of Browning’s next book of poetry.
Browning’s next book, Casa Guidi Windows (1851), revealed her interest in the politics of the Italian Risorgimento. Casa Guidi Windows is “A Poem, in Two Parts,” the first written in 1848 and filled with the optimism attendant upon the abortive Italian revolution of that year. Part 2 was written in 1851 after the crushing defeat of the patriots at Novara in 1849 and is decidedly more pessimistic. The poem’s confident approach is noteworthy, particularly since it was unusual in Browning’s time for a woman poet to venture onto political terrain, which was considered reserved for men. Casa Guidi Windows is written in a modified terza rima, and some of its vivid ironic characterizations are reminiscent of Robert Browning’s poetry and have led critics to assume that Elizabeth was influenced by her husband.
Throughout the 1850’s, Elizabeth and Robert traveled widely in Europe and visited England three times, in 1851, 1855, and 1856. Upon their return to Italy after the last trip, Browning, after ten years of work, published what she and generations of readers after her have considered to be her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh (1857). Aurora Leigh is a novel in verse, an epic poem in nine books inspired in part by the novels of George Sand and Charlotte Brontë but also by the long, reflective Prelude (1850) of William Wordsworth. It tells the story of the eponymous poet-heroine Aurora Leigh, her lover-cousin Romney Leigh, and their turbulent and finally successful romance.
Aurora Leigh is described as a successful but lonely and dissatisfied poet. Early in the poem she rejects the marriage proposal of her cousin Romney, a dedicated philanthropist. At that point in the story, Romney is simply too overbearing for the self-consciously feminist Aurora, who believes that human betterment must come through individual inspiration; Romney, by contrast, believes in organized progress by and for large groups of people. Aurora secludes herself and writes, while Romney embarks on several idealistic but hare-brained schemes (such as building a phalanstery on his ancestral estate and proposing marriage to a poor seamstress). After Romney’s plans fail—the poor people he has installed in the phalanstery burn it down, he is blinded in the fire, and his intended wife is tricked into prostitution—he and Aurora can finally get together. The poem ends with their marriage, as Romney realizes that social betterment must involve the soul as well as the body, and Aurora realizes that a true artist must not separate herself utterly from the world she hopes to influence. Ironically, for all its stated concern for the poor, Aurora Leigh’s “moral” is a conservative one: The “mob” is to be feared, and poetry makes a greater impact on society than philanthropic activities.
Aurora Leigh contains Browning’s highest convictions on life and art, particularly the responsibilities of the poet. She believed fervently that a poet must bear truthful witness to the values of her society, must “represent the age” and never “flinch from modern varnish, coat, or flounce.” Thus her most poignant critique of both Aurora and Romney is that they are overly theoretical. Aurora chides Romney that his “social theory” is a better wife to him than she could ever be; she little realizes how greatly she herself is “wedded” to poetic theories.
In Aurora Leigh, Browning comes closest to integrating the idea “woman” with the idea “poet.” In an important sense, it is about being or becoming a poet in a world that imagines the poet as male. By positioning herself at the center of her own story, the poet Aurora disrupts objectifying male discourse about women; she transforms herself from the object of Romney’s gaze to the subject of her own vision and thereby enacts her liberation. Browning has taken a quintessentially male form, the extended blank-verse epic poem, and put it to the service of women’s concerns. At age twenty, Aurora is aware of herself as “Woman and artist, —either incomplete.” By the end of the epic, ten years have passed, and Aurora has learned that true fulfillment comes from finding completion as both woman and artist.
Browning’s father had not seen or spoken to his daughter since she had left England in 1846. At one point, he sent her a package returning all the unread letters that she had written to him over the years. In 1857, he died unreconciled. In 1860 Browning published Poems Before Congress, the last volume to appear in her lifetime. Most English readers found this book to be a disappointment, too imbued with its author’s often faulty judgments on contemporary French and Italian politics. Browning herself described it as “a very thin and wicked brochure” and fully expected that its pro-Italian, anti-English tone would lead to a negative public reaction.
In 1861, after a long struggle with failing health and weak lungs, Browning died in her husband’s arms on the night of June 29. The following year, Browning’s Last Poems were published. This volume included a variety of poems left uncollected at the time of her death: several on the Italian political scene, one (“De Profundis”) written after Bro’s drowning in 1840 but never published, and several passionate and lyrical poems in the author’s rich mature voice.
After the death of William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was seriously considered to replace him as England’s poet laureate. Though she was not finally chosen—Alfred, Lord Tennyson was—the mere suggestion that she might fill that position and speak with that “national” voice was extraordinary in 1850. It reveals how well-known and well-respected Browning was among her peers.
In the decades following her death, her poetry was nearly forgotten. By 1932, Virginia Woolf was complaining that in the “mansion of literature” Browning had been relegated to the “servants’ quarters.” The revival of interest in her work that Woolf had called for did not take place until the advent of feminist literary criticism in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Since that time, readers have focused on Browning not simply as a poet but as a woman poet. The very characteristics of her work that were seen as most problematic by earlier generations—intense passion, interest in politics, feminist concerns—are now seen as the greatest strengths of her poetry.
Browning’s work is critical to understanding the ways in which a woman poet empowers herself to speak. Browning’s career provides a paradigm for the relationship of a woman poet to a poetic tradition that privileges the male voice. Moreover, she has represented a poetic “foremother” for generations of women poets after her—a figure she herself lacked and for whom she longed. Browning has typically been envisioned as a ringleted Victorian invalid living out an unlikely romantic legend. It is important to remember that she was first and foremost a technician devoted to the craft of poetry.
Brown, Sarah Annes. “Paradise Lost and Aurora Leigh.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 37 (Autumn, 1997): 723-740. Brown examines Browning’s epic novel as a stylistic and subjective rewriting of John Milton’s epic.
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.
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1988. This is the best critical biography of the poet. It includes generous selections from the letters as well as discussion of the poet’s life and work.
Hayter, Alethea. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).” In British Writers. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. This useful overview of the life of the poet includes an excellent six-page discussion of Browning’s poetic imagery and style.
Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. This book is a frequently cited extended discussion of Browning’s poetics.
Tucker, Herbert F. “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends.” In Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure. Edited by Alison Booth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993. Tucker analyzes Aurora Leigh in light of traditional epic form, stressing its relationship to conventional Victorian fiction and poetry.
Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 8 (Fall, 1989): 240-262. In this interesting essay, Zonana considers the problematic subject-object issue surrounding the idea of the poetic muse in Browning’s epic novel. The author explores this idea in relation to previous feminist criticism.
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