The Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A 19th-Century Analysis
By Nava Atlas | On February 18, 2023 | Comments (0)
The following analysis and overview of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), the esteemed British poet, is excerpted from Essays by Arthur Christopher Benson.
Rich in insights and references to other poets of the period, this essay and the book (published in London by William Heinemann in 1896) from which it came are in the public domain.
She came from generations of slave owners
Elizabeth’s father changed the family name to Barrett when he inherited vast businesses, including a West Indies plantations, along with mills, and ships. Edward Barrett was a slave holder.
It is a curious fact that meets us at the very threshold of her life, that the author of “The Cry of the Children,” the passionate partisan of the Abolitionist cause in America and of freedom in Italy, came from generations of slave owners.
In fact, the Jamaica Emancipation Act cost her the loss of her Herefordshire home, by resulting in a large decrease in her father’s fortune.
It seems indeed typical of her sentiment, typical of the limitations and impersonality of her feelings that, among all her bitter reveries and passionate revolts against human tyrannies, it never (so far as we can judge from her correspondence) seems to have occurred to her that the wealth and comfort with which she was surrounded, the very dower of books that made life possible, was actually wrung from generations of slave-labour, the forced toil of hundreds of impotent lives.
No one would ask for, or even hint at expecting, even from the most fantastic idealist, a renunciation of luxury thus acquired; but it is strange that the idea seems never to have entered her head.
“As serious a thing to me as life itself”
Elizabeth Barrett spent a happy, precocious childhood, but by the age of fifteen was already condemned to that bitter isolation of invalid life which, when it falls on a strong and vivid personality, has, fortunately for human nature, a purifying and ennobling effect.
Intellectual effort became first the anodyne of physical evil, then the earnest aim of her life. She never seems to have doubted as to the form that her impulsive need for expression was to take.
She writes to her father in the dedication of her second volume of poems:
“You are a witness how if this art of poetry had been a less earnest object to me, it must have fallen from exhausted hands before this day.”
And again in the preface:
“Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself, and life has been a very serious thing; there has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor leisure for the hour of the poet. I have done my work, so far, as work—not as mere hand and head work, apart from the personal being—but as the completest expression of that being to which I could attain.”
There is something very impressive about the earnestness of this. Its fault is perhaps that it is a little too outspoken.
If she had mistaken pleasure a little more, not perhaps for the final cause, but for one of the primary causes of poetry, we cannot help feeling that she might have done, if not such earnest, at least more artistic work.
She revealed little about her process
One of the things that one expects to find in the biography of a poet is a detailed account of methods of composition.
It is interesting to know whether morning or evening hours were devoted to writing; whether the act of composition was slow or quick; whether the poem was worked out in the mind before it was transmitted to paper; what proportion finished compositions bear to unfinished; whether incomplete work was ever resumed; whether the observation of language was systematized in any way.
All these things one is particularly anxious to hear in the case of a poetess whose work bears at once traces of hasty and elaborate workmanship, whose vocabulary is so extraordinarily eclectic, whose rhymes are so peculiar, and often—may we say?—so unsatisfactory.
We hear indeed incidentally that the solid morning hours were Mrs. Browning’s habitual hours of work; and a curious correspondence has been made public between herself and Horne, which shows that her rhymes, according to herself, were deliberately and painfully selected, principally in the case of dissyllabic rhymes (even, we fear, such pairs as Goethe and duty, Bettine and between ye).
She held that English composers, though the language was rich in these rhythmical combinations, had been instinctively slow in applying them to serious poetry.
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Sonnets from the Portuguese (full text)
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Sonnets from the Portuguese
Mrs. Browning’s best lyrical work was all done before her marriage; but the stirring of the truest depths of her emotional nature took voice in the collection of Sonnets from the Portuguese — strung, in Omar’s words, like pearls upon the string of circumstance.
In these sonnets she speaks the universal language; to her other graces had now been added that which she had somewhat lacked before, the grace of content; and for these probably she will be longest and most gratefully admired.
Anyone who steps for the first time through the door into which he has seen so many enter, and finds that poets and lovers and married folk, in their well-worn commonplaces, have exaggerated nothing, will love these sonnets as one of the sweetest and most natural records of a thing which will never lose its absorbing fascination for humanity.
To those that are without, except for the sustained melody of expression, the poetess almost seems to have passed on to a lower level, to have lost originality—like the celebrated lady whose friends said that till she wrote to announce her engagement she had never written a commonplace letter.
Their fervor indeed rises from the resolute virginity of a heart to whom love had been scarcely a dream, never a hope.
We must think of the isolation, sublime it may have been, but yet desolate, from which her marriage was to rescue her—coming not as only the satisfaction of imperious human needs, but to meet and crown her whole nature with a fulness of which few can dream. As she was afterwards to write in book five of Aurora Leigh:
How dreary ’tis for women to sit still
On winter nights by solitary fires
And hear the nations praising them far off.
The latter years of Mrs. Browning’s life have a certain shadowiness for English readers. The “Casa Guidi,” if we were not painfully haunted by the English in which interviewers have given their impressions of it, is a memory to linger over.
The high dusty passage that gave access to the tall, gloomy house; the huge cool rooms, with little Pennini, so called in contrast to the colossal statue Apennino, “slender, fragile, spirit-like” flitting about from stair to stair: the faint sounds of music breathing about the huge corridors; the scent, the stillness,—such a home as only two poets could create, and two lovers inhabit.
Nathaniel Hawthorne gives, among some rather affected writing about a visit of his there, a few characteristic touches:
“Mrs. Browning met us at the door of the drawing-room—a pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all; at any rate only substantial enough to put forth her slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill yet sweet tenuity of voice.
Really I do not see how Mr. Browning can suppose that he has an earthly wife any more than an earthly child; both are of the elfin race, and will flit away from him some day when he least thinks of it.
She is a good and kind fairy, however, and sweetly disposed towards the human race, although only remotely akin to it. It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world.”
“The boy,” he says elsewhere, “was born in Florence, and prides himself upon being a Florentine, and is indeed as un-English a production as if he were a native of another planet.”
This touch perhaps will explain why it is that we rather lose hold of Mrs. Browning after her marriage; England was connected in her mind with all the old trials of life which seemed to have fallen away with her new existence; ill-health, and mental struggle, bereavement and pain—even though it was pain triumphed over. With marriage and Italy a new life began. It became her adopted country—
And now I come, my Italy,
My own hills! Are you ‘ware of me, my hills,
How I burn to you? Do you feel to-night
The urgency and yearning of my soul.
And there the English reader is at fault. He cannot call Italy his own in any genuine sense; much as his yearnings may go out towards her, in days when his own ungenial climate is wrapping the hedge-rows and hill-farms in mist and driving sleet, much as he may long for a moment after her sun and warmth, her transparent skies and sleepy seas, yet he knows his home is here.
Even when he finds himself among her vines, when the lizards dart powdered with green jewels from stone to stone, and the dust puffs up white in the road beside the bay, he finds himself murmuring in his heart Mr. Browning’s own words.
Oh! to be in England now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England sees some morning unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough—
In England now!
(from “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad” by Robert Browning)
That is what he really feels; and however much he loves to think as a picture of the poet and poetess transplanted into the warm lands, his heart does not go out to them, as it would have done had they stayed at home.
And so it comes to pass that some of the lines into which Mrs. Browning threw her most passionate emphasis, “Casa Guidi Windows,” the words that burn with an alien patriotism — alien, but sunk so deep, that her disappointed hopes made havoc of her life — reach him like murmuring music over water, sweet but fantastic—touching the ear a little and the heart a little, but bringing neither glow nor tears.
They say that the Treaty of Villa Franca snapped the cord; that the bitter disappointment of what had become a passion rather than a dream broke the struggling spirit.
It may be so — “With her golden verse linking Italy to England,” wrote the grateful Florentines upon her monument. But England to Italy?
No — “Italy,” she wrote herself, “is one thing, England one.” We feel that she passed into a strange land, and in its sweetness somewhat forgot her own: the heart is more with her when she writes:
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog
Involve the passive city, strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a sponge
Had wiped out London.
A ripple of land: such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly, and the wheatfields climb.
Such nooks of valleys lined by orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew—at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade;
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being Shakespeare’s.
(from Aurora Leigh)
There is a well-known rhetorical device, upon which Mrs. Browning in her classical studies must have stumbled upon, called the Aposiopesis—in plain English, the art of breaking-off.
Classical writers are often hastily accused by young learners of having framed their writings with a view to introducing perplexing forms and intolerable constructions, so as unnecessarily to obscure the sense.
But it is a matter of regret that Mrs. Browning did not employ this particular construction with greater frequency—to use a colloquial expression—that she did not let you off a good deal.
Many of her poems are weighted with a dragging moral; many of them fly with a broken wing, stopping and rising again, dispersing and returning with a kind of purposeless persistency, as if they were incapable of deciding where to have done.
Poems with passage after passage of extraordinary depth of thought and amazing felicity of expression, every now and then droop and crawl like the rain on a November day, which will not fall in a drenching shower nor quite desist, but keeps dropping, dropping from the sky out of mere weakness or idleness.
To secure an audience a poet must be diplomatic; he must know whose ear he intends to catch. It is mere cant to say that the best poetry cannot be popular; that it should be read is its first requisite.
If Mrs. Browning aimed at any particular class it was perhaps at intellectual sentimentalists. As the two characteristics are rarely found united, in fact are liable to exclude one another, it may perhaps be the reason why she is so little appreciated in her entirety: she is perhaps too learned for women and too emotional for men.
Influence of Greek and the Greek poets
Let us consider for a moment where her intellectual training came from. Roughly speaking, the basis of it was Greek from first to last; at nine years old she measured her life by the years of the siege of Troy, and carved a figure out of the turf in her garden to represent a recumbent warrior, naming it Hector.
Then came her version of the “Prometheus Vinctus;” her long studious mornings over Plato and Theocritus with the blind scholar, Mr. Boyd, whom she commemorates in “Wine of Cyprus,” when she read, as she writes, “the Greek poets, with Plato, from end to end.”
Her dolorous excursion with the Fathers; and at last, in the Casa Guidi, the little row of miniature classics, annotated in her own hand, standing within easy reach of her couch.
Of course she was an omnivorous reader besides. She speaks of reading the Hebrew Bible, “from Genesis to Malachi — never stopped by the Chaldean — and the flood of all possible and impossible British and foreign novels and romances, with slices of metaphysics laid thick between the sorrows of the multitudinous Celestinas.”
But it was evidently in Greek, in the philosophical poetry of Euripides and the poetical philosophy of Plato, that she found her deepest satisfaction.
At the same time she was not in the true sense learned, though possessing learning far greater than commonly falls to a woman’s lot to possess, in her time.
Her education in Greek must have been unsystematic and unscholarly; her classical allusions, which fall so thick in letters and poems have seldom quite the genuine ring
We do not mean that she did not get nearer the heart of the Greek writers and appreciate their spirit more intimately than many a far more erudite scholar; that was to be expected, for she brought enthusiasm and insight and genius to the task.
Her characterization of the classical poets in “The Poet’s Vow” also illustrate this; now so extraordinarily felicitous and clear-sighted, as for instance in the case of Shakespeare and Ossian, and now so alien to the true spirit of the men described.
With that king’s-look which down the trees
Followed the dark effigies
Of the lost Theban. Hesiod old,
Who, somewhat blind and deaf and cold,
Cared most for gods and bulls.
(from “The Poet’s Vow”)
The fact was that she read the Greeks as a woman of genius was sure to do; she passed by their majestic grace, amazed at their solemn profundity, and yet unaware that she was projecting into them a feeling, a sentimental outlook which they did not possess, attributing directly to them a deliberate power which was merely the effect of their unconscious, antique, and limited vision upon the emotional child of a later age.
The strangest thing is that a woman of such complex and sensitive faculties should have given in her allegiance to such models. Never was there a writer in whom the best characteristics of the Greeks were more conspicuously absent.
Their balance, their solidity, their calm, their gloomy acquiescence in the bitter side of life, have surely little in common with the passionate spirit that beat so wildly against the bars, and asked the stars and hills so eagerly for their secrets.
The two poems which are the best instances of the classical mood, are the two of which Pan, the spirit of the solitary country, half beast, half god, is the hero. In these Mrs. Browning appears in her strength and in her weakness.
In “The Dead Pan,” in spite of its solemn refrain, the lengthy disordered mode of thought is seen to the worst advantage: the progression of ideas is obscure, the workmanship is not hurried, but deliberately distressing; the rhymes, owing to that unfortunate fancy for double rhyming, being positively terrific; the brief fury of the lyric mood passing into the utterances of a digressive moralist.
But when we turn to the other, “A Musical Instrument,” what a relief we experience. “What was he doing, the great god Pan, down in the reeds by the river?” The splendid shock of the rhythm, like the solid plunge of a cataract into a mountain-pool, captivates, for all its roughness, the metrical ear.
There is not a word or a thought too much: the scene shapes itself, striking straight out into the thought; the waste and horror that encircle the birth of the poet in the man; the brutish elements out of which such divinity is compounded—these are flung down in simple, delicate outlines: such a lyric is an eternal possession of the English language.
Pure romantic writing
As a natural result of a certain discursiveness of mind, there is hardly any kind of writing unrepresented in Mrs. Browning’s poems. She had at one time a fancy for pure romantic writing, since developed to such perfection by Christina Rossetti.
There is a peculiar charm about such composition. In such works we seem to breathe a freer air, separated as we are from special limitations of time and place; the play of passion is more simple and direct, and the passion itself is of a less complex and restrained character.
Besides, there is a certain element of horror and mystery, which the modern spirit excludes, while it still hungers for it, but is not unnatural when mediævalized.
Nothing in Mrs. Browning can bear comparison with “Sister Helen” or “The Beryl Stone;” but “The Romaunt of the Page” and the “Rhyme of the Duchess May” stand among her most successful pieces. The latter opens with a simple solemnity:
To the belfry, one by one, went the ringers from the sun,
And the oldest ringer said, “Ours is music for the dead,
When the rebecks are all done.”
Six abeles i’ the churchyard grow on the north side in a row,
And the shadow of their tops rock across the little slopes
Of the grassy graves below.
On the south side and the west a small river runs in haste,
And between the river flowing and the fair green trees agrowing,
Do the dead lie at their rest.
On the east I sat that day, up against a willow grey:
Through the rain of willow-branches I could see the low hill ranges,
And the river on its way.
(from “Rhyme of the Duchess May”)
This is like the direct opening notes of the overture of a dirge. Whatever may be said about such writing we feel at once that it comes from a master’s hand. So the poem opens, but alas for the close!
Some chord seems to snap; it is no longer the spirit of the ancient rhymer … The poem passes, still in the same metre, out of the definite materialism, the ghastly excitements of the story into a species of pious churchyard meditation; and the pity of it is that we cannot say that this is not characteristic.
Then closely connected with the last comes a class of poems, of so-called modern life, of which “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” shall stand for an example. This is a poem of nineteenth-century adventure, which is as impossible in design and as fantastic in detail as a poem may well be.
The reader does not know whether to be most amazed at the fire and glow of the whole story, or at the hopeless ignorance of the world betrayed by it. The impossible Earls with their immeasurable pride and intolerable pomposities; the fashionable ladies with their delicate exteriors and callous hearts.
These are like the creations of Charlotte Brontë, and recall Blanche and Baroness Ingram of Ingram Park.
And at the same time, when we have said all this, we read the poem and we can forgive all or nearly all—the spirit is so high, the passion is so fierce and glowing, the poetry that bursts out, stanza after stanza, contrives to involve even these dolorous mistakes in such a glamour, that we can only admire the genius that could contend against such visionary errors.
But we must turn to what after all is Mrs. Browning’s most important and most characteristic work, Aurora Leigh. Unfortunately its length alone, were there not any other reasons, would prevent its ever being popular. [See the link just below to the full analysis of Aurora Leigh by this essay’s commentator, Arthur Christopher Benson].
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Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
A 19th Century Analysis
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A selection of later poems
The longest of her poems are the work of her later years, whereas her strength did not lie so much in sustained narrative effort, in philosophical construction, or patriotic sentiment, as in the true lyrical gift.
It seems more and more clear as time goes on that the poems by which she will be best remembered are some of her shortest—the expression of a single overruling mood—the parable without the explanation—the burst of irrepressible feeling.
I should be inclined, if I had to make a small selection out of the poems, to name seven lyrics as forming the truest and most characteristic work she ever produced—characteristic that is of her strength, and showing the fewest signs of her weakness.
These are: “Loved Once,” “The Romance of the Swan’s Nest,” “Catarina to Camoens,” “Cowper’s Grave,” “The Cry of the Children,” “The Mask,” and lastly “Confessions.”
The latter seems to me one of the stormiest and most pathetic poems in the language. A few words of critical examination may be given to each. The first fact that strikes a reader is that all of these, with one exception, depend to a certain extent upon the use of a refrain.
Of course the refrain is a species of metrical trick; but there is no possibility of denying, that, if properly used, it gives a peculiar satisfaction to that special sense—whatever it be, for there is no defining it—to which metre and rhyme both appeal.
At the same time there is one condition attached to this device, that it should not be prolonged into monotony.
At what precise moment this lapse into monotony takes place, or by what other devices it may be modified, must be left to the sensitive taste of the writer, but if the writer does not discover when it becomes monotonous the reader will do so; and this is certainly the case in “The Dead Pan,” though the refrain is there varied.
To a certain extent too it must be confessed that this same monotony affects two of the poems which we have mentioned: “Loved Once,” and “Catarina to Camoens.”
“Loved Once” deals with the permanence of a worthy love; and the refrain is dismissed as being the mere treasonous utterance of those who have never understood what love is. The poem gains, too, a pathetic interest from the fact that it records the great estrangement of Mrs. Browning’s life.
“Catarina to Camoens” is the dying woman’s answer to her lover’s sonnet in which he recorded the wonder of her gaze. But alas! of these lines we may say with the author of Ionica, “I bless them for the good I feel; but yet I bless them with a sigh.” The poem is vitiated by the unusually large proportion of faulty and fantastic rhymes that it contains.
“The Swan’s Nest,” the story of a childish dream and its disappointment, is an admirable illustration of the artistic principle that the element of pathos depends upon minuteness of detail and triviality of situation rather than upon intensity of feeling.
“The Mask” is not a poem that appears to have been highly praised. But it will appeal to any one who has any knowledge of that most miserable of human experiences—the necessity of dissembling suffering:
I have a smiling face, she said,
I have a jest for all I meet,
I have a garland for my head,
And all its flowers are sweet—
And so you call me gay, she said.
Behind no prison-grate, she said,
Which slurs the sunshine half-a-mile,
Live captives so uncomforted
As souls behind a smile.
God’s pity let us pray, she said.
If I dared leave this smile, she said,
And take a moan upon my mouth,
And twine a cypress round my head,
And let my tears run smooth,
It were the happier way, she said.
And since that must not be, she said,
I fain your bitter world would leave.
How calmly, calmly, smile the dead,
Who do not, therefore, grieve!
The yea of Heaven is yea, she said.
(from “The Mask”)
It is not necessary to quote from either “Cowper’s Grave” or “The Cry of the Children.” The former is the true Elegiac; the latter — critics may say what they will — goes straight to the heart and brings tears to the eyes.
We do not believe that any man or woman of moderate sensibility could read it aloud without breaking down. It has faults of language, structure, metre; but its emotional poignancy gives it an artistic value which it would be fastidious to deny, and which we may expect it to maintain.
“Confessions” — the story of passionate love
“Confessions” is the story of passionate love, lavished by a soul so exclusively and so prodigally on men that it has, in the jealous priestly judgment, sucked away and sapped the natural love for the Father of men.
The poor human soul under the weight of this accusation clings only to the thought of how utterly it has loved the brothers that it has seen.
“And how,” comes the terrible question, “have they requited it? God’s love, you have rejected it—what have you got in its stead from man?”
“Go,” I cried, “thou hast chosen the Human, and left the Divine!
Then, at least, have the Human shared with thee their wild berry wine?
Have they loved back thy love, and when strangers approached thee with blame
Have they covered thy fault with their kisses, and loved thee the same?”
But she shrunk and said,
“God, over my head,
Must sweep in the wrath of His judgment-seas,
If He shall deal with me sinning, but only indeed the same
And no gentler than these.”
We have been dealing with a poet as a poet; but we must not forget that she was a woman too. From Sappho and Sulpicia (whose reputations must be allowed to rest upon somewhat negative proof) to Eliza Cook and Joanna Baillie, how Mrs. Browning distances them all!
A new possibility for women poets?
There was something after all in the quaint proposal of the Athenæum, upon the death of Wordsworth, that the Laureateship should be offered to Mrs. Browning, as typical of the realization of a new possibility for women.
That alone is something of an achievement, though in itself we do not rate it very high. But the truth is that we cannot do without our poets.
The nation is even now pining for a new one, and every soul that comes among us bringing the divinæ particulam auræ, who finds his way to expression, is a possession to congratulate ourselves upon.
If there is that shadowy something in a writer’s work, coming we know not whence and going we know not whither, unseen, intangible, but making its presence felt and heard, we must welcome it and guard it and give it room to move. “My own best poets,” writes Mrs. Browning, “am I one with you?”
Does all this smell of thyme about my feet
Conclude my visit to your holy hill
In personal presence, or but testify
The rustling of your vesture through my dreams
With influent odours?
We need not doubt it; she is worthy to be counted among these:
The only teachers who instruct mankind
From just a shadow on a charnel-wall
To find man’s veritable stature out
Erect, sublime—the measure of a man—
And that’s the measure of an angel, says
(from Aurora Leigh)
We must only touch upon two or three of the most salient points of Mrs. Browning’s biography. Her life was uneventful enough, as far as events go, and its outlines are sufficiently well known. The impression which it leaves upon a reader is strangely mixed.
The intellect with which we are brought into contact is profoundly impressive; the spectacle of a life so vivid and untiring, so hopeful and ardent, lived under the pressure of constant physical suffering, and the still more marked presence of morbidity both of thought and feeling, is inspiring and moving.
Mrs. Browning as a letter-writer is disappointing; again and again there is a touch of true feeling, a noble thought, but with all this there is a want of incisiveness, a wearisome seriousness, which of all qualities is the one that ought not to obtrude itself, a strange lack of humor, a certain strain …
And this may, we think, be best expressed by the pathetic words that fall from her in the letter already quoted: her history was that of a bird in a cage.
Not only from the physical fact that she was for many years of her life an invalid — but mentally and morally also she was caged, by imaginary social fictions, by certain ingrained habits of thought.
Last of all, as a passionate idealist, she saw with painful persistence and in horrible contrast the infinite possibilities of human nature and the limitations of low realities.
More poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning on this site:
- 10 Shorter Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- “Mother and Poet”
- “To Flush, My Dog”
- “A Dead Rose”
- “To George Sand, a Desire”
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