hen we think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we most often associate the poet with Sonnets from the Portuguese. Or perhaps if we do not know of her or the title of the sonnet sequence, we still recognize the famous lines, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Yet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote more than love poetry. She worked in a wide range of forms, including ballads, verse-essays, and verse-novels, and published lyric, drama, and epic poems. Throughout her writing career, she consistently engaged traditionally masculine subjects or poetic forms, culminating in her verse-novel, Aurora Leigh. During her lifetime, Barrett Browning's work was better known than that of her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Her poetry later fell out of favor, probably because of its particularly Victorian qualities of melodrama and concern with morality. Yet her development as a woman writer, desire to speak out against oppression, and influence on other writers of her generation are reasons for re-examining Barrett Browning's work.
Elizabeth Barrett was born to Edward Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke Barrett in 1806. Both her parents came from wealthy or privileged families. For the first two years of her life, Barrett lived with her parents in County Durham in northeast England, not far from her maternal grandparents. When she was three, her family moved to an estate called Hope End in Herefordshire, in west England, near modern-day Wales. It was at Hope End (old English for "closed valley") that Barrett spent a happy childhood taking care of her ten younger brothers and sisters, playing in the hay, riding her pony, and receiving visits from her mother's sisters.
Like many girls at the time, Barrett did not receive a formal education. It is not clear how Barrett learned her French and Latin, and governesses are certainly one possibility. It is also possible that her mother may have taught the children at home—or at least had a very active role in their education—until the boys went away to school in their early teens. In a move that might not have been approved of in other families, Mrs. Barrett gave her oldest daughter novels to read and had Barrett write comments on them in letters to her. From 1817-1820, Barrett's brother Edward (nicknamed "Bro") studied in preparation for boarding school. Barrett also studied with his tutor and learned some Greek. She did translation exercises from Greek literature, including passages from the Elegy of Moschus on Bion, Medea, Plato's Dialogue between Criton and Socrates, and Horace.1
Her studies in the classics had a direct effect on her writing. In 1819, at the age of thirteen, she finished writing The Battle of Marathon, a rhyming epic poem in imitation of Alexander Pope's translation of Homer. In honor of her fourteenth birthday in 1820, Barrett's father paid for fifty copies of the poem to be published. This was not the first time he indulged her writing. Barrett had been writing poetry since a young age, and Mr. Barrett once wrote her a letter addressed to the "Poet Laureate at Hope End," along with a ten shilling note.2
Shortly after Barrett's teenage work was privately published, her brother Edward, whom she was especially close to, went away to the Charterhouse School, leaving her behind. She was envious of his studies—perhaps especially because she no longer had lessons with his tutor, and he had access to further education that she did not. The following year, Barrett, along with her sisters, suffered an illness that included muscle spasms and headaches, and then Barrett later developed measles. She was so slow to recover that Mr. Barrett sent her to recuperate at the Spa Hotel in Gloucester. This was the beginning of health issues that would trouble Barrett on and off for the rest of her life. It is commonly thought that Barrett's health problems were precipitated by a pony-related accident when she was fifteen, but biographer Margaret Forster finds no mention of this incident among Barrett's teenage papers and diaries. Instead Forster notes there seemed to be a shift in the way Barrett viewed herself—she had been an active, robust child, but at the age of thirteen, she wrote that she had "natural ill health." Forster attributes the shift to menstruation, which seems to be a reasonable guess. In that historical time period, it was common to say that women were "unwell" during their menstrual periods. Forster also suggests depression and discouragement as reasons that contributed to Barrett's early illness.3
Illness and her brother's absence did not stop Barrett from writing for too long (even though doctors did warn her against too much reading and writing). Her next major published work was An Essay on Mind, And Other Poems in 1826, at age twenty, although her name did not appear on the publication. The cost of this printing was taken care of by Mary Trepsack, a companion of her grandmother, Mr. Barrett's mother. Like The Battle of Marathon, An Essay on Mind was written in heroic couplets, or a rhyming pair of lines composed in iambic pentameter. The verse-essay was a form often used by Pope, whom Barrett had read and studied. The poem is also reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton invokes the "Heav'nly Muse" in the opening lines of his poem, and similarly, Barrett calls upon "Thou thing of light! instruct my pen to find/ Th' unequal powers, the various forms of Mind!" near the beginning of hers (lines 38-39). An Essay on Mind is remarkable for its engagement with what Simon Avery described as the "bastions of male learning."4 Barrett's classical education through her brother's tutor had given her an intellectual opportunity that many other women at this time did not have, and she made use of it. An Essay on Mind is a philosophical treatise that considers the mind's desire to investigate itself, and is divided into two books. The first focuses on the importance of history and science, and the second turns to metaphysics and poetry. Together the two books consist of over 1260 lines.5
Although Barrett was certainly not yet at the height of her poetic powers, An Essay on Mind opened the door to two important friendships. One was with Sir Uvedale Price, an elderly scholar who wrote to Barrett in 1826 and offered his congratulations. She asked for critical comment on her work, and he obliged. Later he asked her to read the proofs of his Essay on the Modern Pronunciation of the Greek and Latin Languages.6 The two corresponded until his death in 1829. Another important friendship was with the scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, who wrote to Barrett in 1827. Blind since his thirties, Boyd had studied Greek at Cambridge, and soon Boyd and Barrett were corresponding regularly about ancient Greek authors and literature. She later visited him, as well. Boyd served in the role as Barrett's teacher for several years, and she would later dedicate some poems to him.
Barrett's family was pleased with her accomplishment in An Essay on Mind, and Other Poems, especially her mother. Mrs. Barrett wrote to her daughter: "you are launched on the world as an Authoress," and she pushed for reviews of Barrett's work, even urging her brother (Barrett's uncle) to see what influence he could wield with publications. Extended family was supportive and supplied local bookshops with copies. When the book arrived in the mail at the Barrett household, dinner was in progress. Forster describes the scene this way:
In came Mr. Barrett triumphant, book in hand, and declared, "There is your poem!" For once, Barrett standards were swept aside. The dinner remained untouched until a paper-cutter was procured and the pages slit open and then mouthfuls were eaten only between readings of the poems. In other rooms, the younger children—"for news ran like lightning thro' the nursery"—were not content to wait their turn.7
Barrett loved her family members deeply and valued their love and support. Unfortunately, the Barrett family was not to remain an intact unit. In 1828, two years after publication of An Essay on Mind, Mrs. Barrett became ill for several months and then died. Barrett was numb with shock. Her teacher Boyd encouraged her to keep up her studies. Another family upheaval occurred in 1832, when there was trouble with Mr. Barrrett's financial situation. Mr. Barrett's grandfather had made his fortune on sugar plantations in Jamaica, and a dispute about the inheritance had not gone in Mr. Barrett's favor. Hope End had to be sold, and so the Barrett family packed up and moved to Sidmouth, Devon, along the south coast of England. They later moved to 50 Wimpole Street in London in 1838.
In the meantime, Barrett undertook a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which was published in 1833, while also contributing individual poems to magazines with the help of her brother Edward, who corresponded with the editors. Two months after arriving to Wimpole Street in 1838, she published a volume of poetry, The Seraphim and Other Poems. The Seraphim is considered to be Barrett's first original work because it was not a conscious imitation of any the writers she had read and studied. The Seraphim is also significant because it was the first volume to be published under Barrett's own name. Mr. Barrett, who had before not wanted his daughter's name to appear with her work, changed his mind and gave permission.
The title poem is a dramatic dialogue between two angels who view the Crucifixion as they look downward from outside heaven's gate. By contemporary standards, the tone is melodramatic and the theological content rather heavy, but the poem is Barrett's first attempt at conveying what scholar Rebecca Stott would identify as Barrett's understanding of the "nature of the poet as prophet or transcendent being."8 Although the nature of the poet may be transcendent, Barrett points out in the collection's next poem, "The Poet's Vow," transcendence does not mean cutting oneself off from human love and companionship. The poet in "The Poet's Vow" learns too late that his self-imposed isolation has contributed to the death of Rosalind, a woman who loves him. Throughout the volume, Barrett tended to experiment with rhyme, sometimes using sight rhyme or half rhymes.9 Reviews of The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared in several publications.
In 1837 and 1838, Barrett suffered another illness. This time she had a pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding in the lungs. The doctor recommended that she be sent to Torquay, a seacoast town in Devon, to recover. In late 1838, she traveled from London to Torquay with three of her siblings: Arabella ("Arabel"), George, and Edward. Treatment at Torquay was not particularly pleasant for Barrett, because the doctor did not want her to write letters—and especially not poetry—presumably because the excitement of writing kept her body from healing. Reading seems to have been allowed, though, because Barrett looked forward to getting newspapers and magazines. It seems unlikely that Barrett completely followed her doctor's instructions not to write, because some of her poems were published in magazines in the late 1830s, during her time in Torquay. At Barrett's request, Edward stayed with her in Torquay after Arabel and George left. He gave her gifts and would even lie down on the empty side of her bed and talk for hours. Perhaps he also sent out her poems to publishers.
While Barrett convalesced in Torquay in early 1840, she received word that her brother Sam had died of fever in Jamaica. This news distressed her deeply, and Mr. Barrett came to Torquay to be with his oldest daughter. Mr. Barrett was still in Torquay in July when the family experienced yet another tragedy: Edward went out boating with some friends, and he never returned. Overcome and fragile, Barrett drifted in and out of sleep, and when she was awake, could not weep or even focus. Her father stayed with her in Torquay for the rest of 1840, and Barrett herself did not return home to London until September of 1841. "De Profundis," a poem that Barrett wrote shortly after Edward's death, was not published in her lifetime.
In an effort to help Barrett in her grief, her friend and mentor Mary Russell Mitford sent a six-month-old puppy. Flush proved to be a great help to Barrett. She fussed over him (her aunt and father saved treats for him), learned his food likes and dislikes, and at one point, even tried to teach him how to read. He appeared in her next volume of poetry in a trochaic twenty-stanza poem called "To Flush, My Dog." She praised Flush for his energy, "prank," and "sportive[ness]," but was particularly grateful that he
…watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary,
Watched within a curtained room
Where no sunbeam break the gloom
Round the sick and weary.10 (stanza VII)
Flush would be a faithful friend and companion to Barrett until his death in 1854.
Barrett continued to read, study, and write. Barrett's prose essay, "Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets," appeared in The Athenaeum in 1842. The essay is a survey of notable Greek Christian poets from the second through fourteenth centuries, and it bears the fruit of Boyd's tutelage. Boyd himself was interested in Greek Christian poets and had many passages of their work memorized.11 Also appearing in The Athenaeum that year was Barrett's survey of English poets from Chaucer to the present.
Because Barrett was often sick, she was excused from household duties and social obligations, which meant that the work of cooking and cleaning fell to others, probably servants, and the work of hosting and visiting went to her sisters Henrietta and Arabel. This allowed Barrett uninterrupted time to pursue her writing and studying. Even when she was not ill, Barrett continued her practice of reading and writing in her third floor bedroom, which had bookshelves and a table. The room also had a set of "majestic heads …busts of poets and philosophers," a present from her father when the Barretts first arrived at Wimpole Street. One cannot help but wonder which of these poets and philosophers might have occupied Barrett's room. In Poems, her next volume of poetry, Barrett included "A Vision of Poets," a poem in which she envisions a gathering of poets past and present, including Homer, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante, Sappho, Virgil, Goethe, Chaucer, Milton, Marlowe, Burns, and Shelley. If sculptural representations of poets were in her room, then "A Vision of Poets" may have found some inspiration from her father's gift.
Poems was published by Edward Moxon in London in 1844, and Barrett dedicated the volume to her father. Editors in America also planned a release of Barrett's volume there.12 Poems begins with "A Drama of Exile," a poem about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The poem gives voice to Eve's feelings about her role in the expulsion, as well as Lucifer's motivations in causing the humans to fall. In addition to the opening drama, the volume contains a range of sonnets, ballads, and other metered verse.
In The Seraphim, Barrett had offered poems on Queen Victoria's coronation; in Poems of 1844, she continued her interest in political figures with two poems placed next to each other, one about Queen Victoria's marriage, "Crowned and Wedded," and the other about Napoleon, "Crowned and Buried." Her desire for bringing attention to social wrongs also came to the forefront in "The Cry of the Children." After reading a government report on the conditions of children who worked in mines and factories, Barrett penned a poem in thirteen stanzas that appeared first in Blackwood's Magazine:
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see,
For they think you see their angels in their places,
With eyes meant for Deity.
'How long,' they say, 'how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child's heart,—
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blood splashes upward, O goldheaper,
And your purple shows your path!
But the child's sob in the silence curses deeper
Than the strong man in his wrath.'13 (stanza XIII)
Barrett's Poems of 1844 produced reviews, both favorable and critical ones. The critical reviews did not bother her; in fact, she sometimes took them more seriously, believing that they might contain more impartial feedback. Positive reviews from friends might be too biased in her favor, and therefore unhelpful. She was pleased with the review in The Athenaenium, which said she was in a different class of female poets. Barrett was glad to read this review because she wanted to be distinguished from poet Caroline Norton, whose separation from her husband had caused a scandal, especially when her husband accused her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister. Barrett had been shocked when her friend and correspondent, the editor Richard Horne, had placed Norton and Barrett together in the same chapter in A New Spirit of the Age, a survey of contemporary literature, which had been published a few months before Poems of 1844 was released. Horne also said that she was "almost hermetically sealed" in her bedroom.14 While it was true that Barrett had spent a lot of time in her room, and true that she often did not leave the house, Horne made things sound more dramatic than they were.15 Barrett was disappointed that Horne spent more time praising her womanhood (and patience at bearing her illness) than focusing on her poetry.16
Since her more recent illness, Barrett did stay at home because of weakness. Yet there had been times when social anxiety kept her at home, as well. When Barrett and Hugh Stuart Boyd first began their correspondence, Barrett came up with excuses as to why she could not visit him, even though he lived relatively close by. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to go and visit regularly, to the point that her aunt questioned whether Barrett might be wearing out her welcome. In 1836, John Kenyon, a distant cousin, introduced Barrett to Mary Russell Mitford, a writer most known for her observations of village life. Barrett was afraid to meet Mitford and experienced weakness in her knees and a racing heart on the morning of the visit. As it turned out, the visit went well, but if Barrett experienced this kind of physical anxiety regularly in anticipation of social situations, then perhaps her preference to stay home was a way of managing her anxiety.
As shy as Barrett may have been, and as reluctant as she was to leave the house, she kept herself informed of current events and happenings in the arts, thanks to reviews in newspapers and magazines. She also corresponded with a number of people, and occasionally received visitors in her bedroom. She kept abreast of contemporary poets and literature. As a result of conversation with Mitford, Barrett read Paracelsus, a volume of poetry by the poet Robert Browning. In a correspondence not unlike the one Barrett had with her own mother on novels, Barrett shared with Mitford her impressions of Browning's book, including that she thought Browning was a "poet in the holy sense."17 In fact, Barrett thought so highly of Browning as a poet that she mentioned him, along with Wordsworth and Tennyson in "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," a poem that appeared in her 1844 collection. In early 1845, Barrett received a letter from Browning, who wrote admiringly of her Poems. Barrett replied professionally, thanking him. This was the first exchange of what would become hundreds of letters.
Barrett and Browning corresponded first about poetry. As she had with Boyd and Uvedale Price, Barrett asked Browning for critical comments on her work. After three months, Browning asked about coming to visit her. Barrett, who avoided social situations when she could, found excuses to put off such a meeting. Browning kept pushing the matter. Finally she consented to a visit in May 1845, convinced that Browning would not like her after seeing and talking with her. The visit went well, and she found that liked him, but then Browning got rather ahead of himself. In a letter after the visit, it appears that he asked her to marry him. Barrett refused.18 She was, then, still wearing black for the loss of her brother Edward. He asked her forgiveness, and then kept on writing letters.
Barrett and Browning's correspondence deepened over the next few months. They discussed literature, past and present. She was revising her previous translation of Prometheus Bound, and he helped with a phrase here and there, relying on his own knowledge of Greek. He even asked for her feedback on some of his work. Browning now visited once a week for an hour, but the rest of the time, they wrote letters. Barrett's health began to improve visibly, and she ventured outside to sit in the sun.
Meanwhile, Barrett was facing a situation that was becoming harder and harder to ignore. The nearly forty-year old Barrett knew Mr. Barrett would never give her permission to marry Robert Browning. Her sister Henrietta had asked to marry someone before, and Mr. Barrett had angrily refused. Now Henrietta was in love with Surtees Cook, and it was unlikely that Mr. Barrett would permit that match, either. Even her brother Edward had spent time with a woman, but Edward knew that he could not marry without financial independence from his father. Barrett, the only child in the family who had an independent source of income, thanks to an inheritance from Mr. Barrett's mother, considered giving her brother some money to help him. Edward drowned before the possible plan took any sort of visible shape.
It is unclear exactly why Mr. Barrett was opposed to his children getting married, although he claimed that he simply would not approve proposed matches unless they were completely satisfactory to him.19 One possibility is that he wanted his children to be emotionally dependent on him alone. Another is that he was concerned about Jamaican slave blood in the family line that could possibly manifest itself in his grandchildren.20 Still another possibility is that in his grief at the death of his wife, Mr. Barrett turned to religious understandings that saw marriage or sexual union as less than God's will.21 Mr. Barrett, who has been described as tyrannical in some literature, was certainly not tyrannical all the time, and his children loved and respected him. But he was controlling, and he was not the easiest person to live with. He could be harsh. A teenage Barrett asked his feedback on some writing, and he thoroughly criticized it and then suggested that she burn it. He could also change his mind without warning or explanation. Mr. Barrett once gave permission for his adult children to put on a play at Wimpole Street, but then as the rehearsals started, forbade the entire thing.22 It seems understandable that Barrett did not want to bring up the subject of marrying Robert Browning.
Barrett and Browning continued their correspondence and weekly visits. By early 1846, they were deeply in love with each other and were thinking about future plans. Browning wanted to get married right away, but Barrett wanted more time, probably to avoid a family crisis. The decision about what to do became clear when Mr. Barrett decided in September 1846 that the house needed to be re-papered, and the family would need to move out while the work was being done. Barrett and Browning swung into action, making plans for their wedding and relocation to Italy, where the climate was warmer and better for Barrett's health. On September 12, 1846, Barrett and Browning married secretly at a nearby church, with Barrett's maid and Browning's cousin present. They returned to their respective dwelling places, and then left a week later for Italy. Barrett's maid and Flush the dog also went with them.
Throughout the entire planning process, Barrett had taken no family members into confidence, although it is likely that her sisters suspected what was going on. She made clear in a letter she left behind for her father that none of her siblings had been involved in the plan for her marriage. Her father responded by letter, saying that she was disinherited. Barrett's brothers were also angry with her for bringing shame to the family name. Her sisters, on the other hand, wrote and said they understood, and hoped she was happy. Eventually her brothers came around, probably because Henrietta and Surtees Cook later asked Mr. Barrett for permission to marry, and he refused to grant it. They got married anyway in 1850, and Henrietta was also disinherited. Alfred got married in 1855, and he, too, received the same treatment.
Married life and Italy suited Barrett Browning very well. She and her husband moved to Florence in 1847, where they rented an apartment in Casa Guidi. It was from this building that the Brownings witnessed a parade celebrating the Grand Duke Leopold's decision to allow the Florentine people to have a civic guard. This event inspired the first part of a later work, Casa Guidi Windows. Although she had always been aware of politics and had discussed them with her father and brothers, Barrett Browning's interest in politics and social causes deepened while living in Italy. Her poem about American slavery, "Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," appeared in an American anti-slavery publication, The Liberty Bell, in 1848. This poem, as well as the sonnet "Hiram Powers' 'Greek Slave,'" appeared in an 1850 edition of Barrett Browning's works. It was also in 1850 that The Athenaeum, a journal that had published a number of pieces by Barrett Browning, suggested that she be considered for the Poet Laureate of England, since Wordsworth had died.23 The position went to Tennyson.
Barrett Browning's famous Sonnets from the Portuguese was also included in her Poems of 1850. The sonnets were written during her courtship with Browning. She was not sure if the sonnets should be made public since they were so personal, but Browning saw similarities in theme between the sonnets and "Caterina to Camoens," a poem that appeared in her 1844 collection. A title deflecting the personal nature of the sonnets seemed to be in order, and Barrett Browning suggested Sonnets from the Bosnian. Browning, using a pet name he had for his wife ("my little Portuguese")24 , instead proposed Sonnets from the Portuguese. Particularly significant about her collection of sonnets is its gender reversal: Sonnets from the Portuguese was written by a woman, about men, unlike many previous sonnets written by men, about women.
Writing was not the only thing occupying Barrett Browning's mind in the late 1840s. After two miscarriages, she was pregnant for the third time. Barrett Browning carried the baby to full term, and she gave birth to a healthy Robert Wiedemann Browning on March 9, 1849. The Brownings' son was named for Robert Browning's mother, whose maiden name was Wiedemann, but the baby became known as Pen. Pen would appear near the end of the second part of Casa Guidi Windows as the narrator's own "young Florentine" (line 743), a reason for the narrator to hope, despite her disappointment in the political turn of events in Italy.25 Duke Leopold had granted a constitution to the people in Tuscany, which was then governed by Austria. The Duke was reinstated as ruler in 1849, escorted by the Austrian army. Barrett Browning felt betrayed by the Duke and was also saddened that the possibility of Italian unification and independence, which had seemed so close, was as far off as ever.
Casa Guidi Windows (1851) is a poem with sharp contrasts, mainly because it was inspired by contrasting events. Part One depicts people gathered out in the street, as seen through the window at Casa Guidi, and is exultant, hopeful, and triumphant at the Duke's granting a civic guard. A child in the street calls out, "O bella liberta, O bella!" (line 3). Barrett Browning imagines the presence of long-dead figures, such as Dante, rejoicing in the celebration. Part Two, also seen through the window at Casa Guidi, depicts an Austrian military march to reinstall the Grand Duke:
…sword and bayonet,
Horse, foot artillery,—cannons rolling on
Like blind slow storm-clouds gestant with the heat
Of undeveloped lightning's, each bestrode
By a single man, dust-white from head to heel,
Indifferent as the dreadful thing he rode,
Like a sculptured Fate serene and terrible. (lines 301-307)26
Barrett was passionate about Italian unity and independence, a cause she took up even more strongly in Poems Before Congress (1860). This collection was highly controversial because of her criticism toward England for not doing more to advance the cause of Italian independence from Austria. To English readers, Barrett Browning seemed disloyal to her own country. Perhaps inspired by her Whig political sympathies that valued the rights of the individual, her Congregationalist upbringing (a denomination not affiliated with the Anglican church), and by her personal experiences with her father, an underlying theme in Barrett Browning's work was liberation of the oppressed (indeed, her first major poem, The Battle of Marathon, was about fighting for the liberty of Athens)27, a theme that came to forefront in her woman-centered epic, Aurora Leigh.
Barrett Browning had pondered Aurora Leigh long before she wrote it in the mid-1850s. A verse novel in nine sections, the prose poem is eleven thousand lines long. Aurora Leigh, a girl with an Italian mother and English father, is orphaned and sent back to live with her aunt in England. Her aunt is not a particularly kind person, but takes her in out of duty. Aurora passes an obedient childhood learning suitable knowledge, reading books appropriate for young women, and doing cross-stitch. Her cousin Romney Leigh asks her to marry him, believing that Aurora would make a good helpmate in his desire to help the poor and advance social causes. Aurora declines, saying that Romney loves her for what she can do, but not for who she is. She is also a budding writer and poet, and Romney believes that art is sentimental and incapable of accomplishing the social changes he dreams of. Rodney also believes that women should not write poetry.
Aurora Leigh is a complex work. A philosophical treatise on the role of art, a commentary on the role and situation of women and the poor, a Kunstlerroman, a love story, and a story of women's friendships28, the verse-novel continues with Romney's intentions of marrying a poor woman named Marian Erle, only to have her abandon him at the altar, feeling that she is beneath Romney socially. Later Marian is raped, becomes pregnant, and is sold into a brothel. Meanwhile, Aurora has finally written a successful book, and she invites Marian and the baby to come with her when Aurora returns to her native Italy. It is in Italy that Romney comes to Aurora, physically blinded from a fire and disillusioned by social causes. Her book of poetry has moved him in a new way and opened his spiritual insight. Romney and Aurora declare their love for each other, and the work ends with their imminent marriage.
Aurora Leigh was released in late 1856 and was an instant success. In fact, it went through three printings in four months (and a total of five in Barrett Browning's lifetime). The book received praise and criticism, ranging from praise for the poem's "epic tone and loftiness" and criticism for using the high epic form to treat such low subject matter. Prostitution and rape—shocking subjects to begin with—were deemed more suitable for a novel, and poems were for higher, "ideal" subject matter. Similarly, men tended to write the high epic poems, and women were expected to write poems about "the delicate, the subtle, the small scale." Barrett Browning had crossed the bounds of subject matter that proper Victorian women should speak or write about—and the accepted ways of how to present it. She had chosen an epic poem, as opposed to a novel.29
The epic as a mode of writing is typically concerned with heroic figures and historical events. As someone schooled in the classics, Barrett Browning certainly knew and understood what an epic was. But part of Barrett Browning's aim in writing Aurora Leigh was to offer her own ideas about what poetry should treat. As Aurora points out, poets should not simply depict past events, but rather
…represent the age
Their age, not Charlemagne's,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, and aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms. (lines 202-206) 30
Aurora Leigh looks to the present age for heroes and difficulties, and Barrett Browning put a woman poet at the center of an epic, and included as a major character a woman of low socio-economic status. Barrett Browning had, as scholar Rebecca Stott notes, turned to the "heroism of everyday life" and put forth a woman-centered, "domesticate[d]" epic.31
Barrett Browning had expected that Aurora Leigh might not be well received. She wrote to her friend and fellow writer Anna Jameson that she "expected to be put in the stocks and pelted with …eggs" and expressed surprise to her sisters Henrietta and Arabel that she had not been more criticized in the press.32 Some reviews claimed that she had copied Jane Eyre, a novel published nine years earlier in 1847, because of thematic similarities. This was a charge that Barrett Browning denied. She had indeed read Jane Eyre eight years ago, but was disappointed in it. Barrett Browning even reread Jane Eyre as a result of the reviews, but still did not think the accusations had any solid basis.33
Barrett Browning also wondered and worried what her father thought of Aurora Leigh. Over the years, she had attempted reconciliation with him. She had written letters and tried to visit him on a trip back to London, but he would not see her and the letters were returned unopened. Now that she had finished a successful, major work, Barrett Browning sadly admitted, "I think so much of these things in reference to him, …but I daresay he is absolutely indifferent to me and my writings." 34 Mr. Barrett died of a skin infection in the spring of 1857, shortly after Aurora Leigh's third print run.
Barrett Browning's health faltered again after publishing Aurora Leigh and the death of her father. Travel to Bagni de Lucca in 1857 and to Paris in 1858 did not seem to lift her physical energy or her spirits for very long. Events in Europe excited her, though: the French leader Napoleon III and Italian statesman Camillo di Cavour had joined forces to fight against Austria and to free Italy. Barrett Browning, unlike some Europeans of her time, believed that Napoleon's motives and intentions were altruistic. She wrote an admiring poem, "Napoleon III. in Italy," that appeared in Poems Before Congress, a pamphlet of poems that was published in 1860. Barrett Browning may have been influenced by historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who proposed the "Able-man," an ideal political leader with spiritual charisma who would be able to rule and instruct the people. The refrain in "Napoleon III. in Italy," which reads "Emperor/ Evermore," seems to reflect Carlyle's ideas.35
Neither Napoleon nor the war brought about the results that Barrett Browning desired. Instead, Napoleon met with the Austrian emperor at Villafranca to negotiate. Some provinces were returned to Austrian control, and others went to France, which ceded the area to the Piedmont. This turn of events in 1859 disappointed Barrett Browning so much that her illness and depression deepened. There had also been a planned international congress on Italian unification, but when it became apparent that the congress was not going to take place, Barrett Browning incorporated it into the title of her work.36 Many of the poems in this collection received fierce criticism.
In late 1860, Barrett Browning's sister Henrietta died from cancer, which probably did not help Barrett Browning's own health. She became progressively weaker in the spring of 1861, and then the sudden death of the Camillo di Cavour on June 6, which came as a shock to Italians, seemed to be Barrett Browning's death-blow. Congestion that had been developing in her lungs now became worse. In the early morning hours on June 29, 1861, feverish but not in pain, Barrett Browning died in her husband's arms at Casa Guidi. She was fifty-five years old.
Barrett Browning's final work, Last Poems, was published posthumously in 1862. She had been working on other poems before her final illness, and had even made a list, probably for the intention of future publication.37 In this collection was "De Profundis," the poem about her brother Edward's death, as well as poems about Italy, but others about social issues, such as "A Song for the Ragged Schools of London," a poem pleading for care and kindness toward children on the London streets. Another was the ballad "Lord Walter's Wife," a poem that had been rejected in 1861 by William Makepeace Thackeray for publication in Cornhill Magazine because of its sexually suggestive nature. In it, a man tries to seduce another man's wife, and she evades him by saying that she is seducing him. Thackeray thought readers would "make an outcry" if the poem were published; Barrett Browning wrote back and said silence on the subjects of vice and hypocrisy was precisely the problem: "I am deeply convinced that corruption of our society requires not shut doors and windows, but light and air."38 Another notable inclusion in Last Poems is "Bianca and the Nightingales," a ballad in iambic tetrameter about lost love and death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work was well known in England and in America during her lifetime and shortly beyond. The American poet Edgar Allen Poe took note of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" in Poems of 1844. There is evidence to suggest that it influenced his poem, "The Raven,"39 which he later dedicated to her. Some women writers who were contemporaries to Barrett Browning found her influence helpful or inspiring, including essayist Dora Greenwell, novelist and poet Dinah Mulock Craik, and poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, who liked the work of both Brownings, had a framed picture of Barrett Browning in her bedroom.40 Dickinson also owned a copy of Aurora Leigh and even underlined certain passages that meant a lot to her.41 Barrett Browning's ruminations on truth and beauty in the poem "A Vision of Poets" may also have influenced Dickinson's poem #448, where the narrator explains (s)he died for beauty and the grave-mate explains he died for truth. Barrett Browning writes:
…these were poets true,
Who died for Beauty as martyrs do
For Truth—the ends being scarcely two. (lines 289-291)42
Dickinson, in a similar vein, writes:
I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining room
Barrett Browning saw poetry as her vocation, and she worked at it throughout her entire life. She wrote intellectual poems when fewer women were writing them, authored sonnets that explored a woman's love for a man, and created a woman-centered epic, Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning ventured into the male sphere of politics and wrote a number of politically controversial poems, some related to Italian independence and unification, and others about social wrongs. Browning's work inspired both women and men poets and writers during the nineteenth century, and hopefully her dedication, vision, boldness, and writings will continue to influence poets in the generations to come.
Poetic Works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861):
The Battle of Marathon. A Poem, 1820
An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, 1826.
Prometheus Bound—Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus. And Miscellaneous Poems, 1833.
The Seraphim, and Other Poems, 1838.
Casa Guidi Windows. A Poem, 1851.
Aurora Leigh, 1857.
Poems Before Congress, 1860.
Last Poems, 1862.
Avery, Simon and Rebecca Stott. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Essex, England: Pearson, 2003.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories: With an Inedited Autobiography. Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1914. Reprinted by BiblioLife.
---. The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Carpenter, Mary Wilson. Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.
Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: HarperCollins, 1988.
Horne, Richard H. The New Spirit of the Age. Elder, Smith and Company, 1844. Accessed May 25, 2014.
Lundin, Robert. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
The Poetry Foundation. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning." Accessed May 23, 2014.
Pollock, Mary S. "The anti-canonical realism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Lord Walter's Wife.'" Studies in the Literary Imagination 29:1 (1996): 43-54.
Wall, Jennifer Kingma. "Love and Marriage: How Biographical Interpretation Affected the Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnets From the Portuguese' (1850)." The Victorian Web. Accessed April 13, 2015.
The Cry of the Children
"Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;" ?[[Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.]]—Medea.
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Do you question the young children in the sorrow,
Why their tears are falling so ?
The old man may weep for his to-morrow
Which is lost in Long Ago —
The old tree is leafless in the forest —
The old year is ending in the frost —
The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest —
The old hope is hardest to be lost :
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
Do you ask them why they stand
Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,
In our happy Fatherland ?
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their looks are sad to see,
For the man's grief abhorrent, draws and presses
Down the cheeks of infancy —
"Your old earth," they say, "is very dreary;"
"Our young feet," they say, "are very weak !"
Few paces have we taken, yet are weary—
Our grave-rest is very far to seek !
Ask the old why they weep, and not the children,
For the outside earth is cold —
And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering,
And the graves are for the old !"
"True," say the children, "it may happen
That we die before our time !
Little Alice died last year her grave is shapen
Like a snowball, in the rime.
We looked into the pit prepared to take her —
Was no room for any work in the close clay :
From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,
Crying, 'Get up, little Alice ! it is day.'
If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,
With your ear down, little Alice never cries ;
Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,
For the smile has time for growing in her eyes,—
And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in
The shroud, by the kirk-chime !
It is good when it happens," say the children,
"That we die before our time !"
Alas, the wretched children ! they are seeking
Death in life, as best to have !
They are binding up their hearts away from breaking,
With a cerement from the grave.
Go out, children, from the mine and from the city —
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do —
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through !
But they answer, " Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine ?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap —
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping —
We fall upon our faces, trying to go ;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground —
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
"For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, —
Their wind comes in our faces, —
Till our hearts turn, — our heads, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling —
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, —
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling —
All are turning, all the day, and we with all !—
And all day, the iron wheels are droning ;
And sometimes we could pray,
'O ye wheels,' (breaking out in a mad moaning)
'Stop ! be silent for to-day ! ' "
Ay ! be silent ! Let them hear each other breathing
For a moment, mouth to mouth —
Let them touch each other's hands, in a fresh wreathing
Of their tender human youth !
Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals —
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels ! —
Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
As if Fate in each were stark ;
And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.
Now tell the poor young children, O my brothers,
To look up to Him and pray —
So the blessed One, who blesseth all the others,
Will bless them another day.
They answer, " Who is God that He should hear us,
While the rushing of the iron wheels is stirred ?
When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us
Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word !
And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)
Strangers speaking at the door :
Is it likely God, with angels singing round Him,
Hears our weeping any more ?
" Two words, indeed, of praying we remember ;
And at midnight's hour of harm, —
'Our Father,' looking upward in the chamber,
We say softly for a charm.
We know no other words, except 'Our Father,'
And we think that, in some pause of angels' song,
God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,
And hold both within His right hand which is strong.
'Our Father !' If He heard us, He would surely
(For they call Him good and mild)
Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,
'Come and rest with me, my child.'
"But, no !" say the children, weeping faster,
" He is speechless as a stone ;
And they tell us, of His image is the master
Who commands us to work on.
Go to ! " say the children,—"up in Heaven,
Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds are all we find !
Do not mock us ; grief has made us unbelieving —
We look up for God, but tears have made us blind."
Do ye hear the children weeping and disproving,
O my brothers, what ye preach ?
For God's possible is taught by His world's loving —
And the children doubt of each.
And well may the children weep before you ;
They are weary ere they run ;
They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory
Which is brighter than the sun :
They know the grief of man, without its wisdom ;
They sink in the despair, without its calm —
Are slaves, without the liberty in Christdom, —
Are martyrs, by the pang without the palm, —
Are worn, as if with age, yet unretrievingly
No dear remembrance keep,—
Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly :
Let them weep ! let them weep !
They look up, with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see,
For they think you see their angels in their places,
With eyes meant for Deity ;—
"How long," they say, "how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child's heart, —
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart ?
Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,
And your purple shews your path ;
But the child's sob curseth deeper in the silence
Than the strong man in his wrath !"
1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories: With an Inedited Autobiography (Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1914; reprinted by BiblioLife), 8-9, 12.
2 Margaret Forster, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: HarperCollins, 1988), 27.
3 Forster, 22 and 29; Mary Wilson Carpenter, Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 154.
4 Simon Avery, "Audacious Beginnings," in Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Essex, England: Pearson, 2003), 60.
5 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, An Essay on Mind in The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 499-512.
6 Simon Avery, "Constructing the Poet Laureate at Hope End: Elizabeth Barrett's Early Life," in Avery and Stott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 31.
7 Forster, 37.
8 Rebecca Stott, "The Culture of the Soul," in Avery and Stott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 72.
9 Forster, 88.
10 Barrett Browning, Poems of 1844, in Poetical Works, 163.
11 Ibid., Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets, in Poetical Works, 513.
12 Forster, 128.
13 "The Cry of the Children," Poems of 1844, stanza XIII, in Poetical Works, 156-158.
14 Richard H. Horne, The New Spirit of the Age (Smith, Elder and Company, 1844), 134. http://books.google.com/books?id=eFELAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA129&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed May 10, 2014).
15 Simon Avery suggests that Richard Horne played a role in the mythologizing of Barrett Browning as an invalid and a recluse. Simon Avery, "The Voice of a Decade: Elizabeth Barrett's Political Writings of the 1840s," in Avery and Stott, 88.
16 Forster, 127.
17 Forster, 83.
18 Ibid., 151-53.
19 Forster, 383, note 4.
20 This speculative idea was put forth by Julia Markus, Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, London: Bloomsbury, 1995, 105-115.
21 Forster, 98-99.
22 Ibid., 137.
23 Forster notes that the suggestion for Barrett Browning to be appointed as Poet Laureate was probably not a serious one, 245-46.
24 Jennifer Kingma Wall, "Love and Marriage: How Biographical Interpretation Affected the Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnets From the Portuguese' (1850)," The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/wall1.html (accessed April 13, 2015).
25 Casa Guidi Windows, Part Two, line 743, in Poetical Works, 253.
26 Casa Guidi Windows, Part Two, lines 301-307, in Poetical Works, 246.
27 Avery, "Introduction: A Poet Lost and Regained," in Avery and Stott, 6.
28 Stott, "'Where Angels Fear To Tread': Aurora Leigh," in Avery and Stott, 181-82.
29 Forster, 316 and 318, and Stott, "'Where Angels Fear to Tread,'" 204-05.
30 Aurora Leigh, Fifth Book, lines 202-206, in Poetical Works, 327.
31 Stott, "'Where Angels Fear to Tread,'" 204.
33 Forster, 316-17 and 229.
34 Forster, 319.
35 Avery, "'Twixt Church and Palace of A Florence Street': Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Italy," in Avery and Stott, 167 and 177.
36 Ibid., 177, and Forster, 384-85.
37 Last Poems, in Poetical Works, 424.
38 Forster, 357, and Mary S. Pollock, "The anti-canonical realism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Lord Walter's Wife,'" Studies in the Literary Imagination 29:1 (1996), 51-52.
39 See Killis Campbell, ed., The Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (Ginn and Company, 1917), 251.
40 The Poetry Foundation, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/elizabeth-barrett-browning (accessed May 23, 2014).
41 Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 168.
42 Poems of 1844, "A Vision of Poets," lines 289-291, in Poetical Works, 131.
43 The similarity of the truth and beauty mentioned in Barrett Browning's verse and Dickinson's poem has been noted by Robert Lundin, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, 168, and Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York: Knopf, 2008), 249.