This two volume collection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems, dedicated to her father and published by Edward Moxon, was first published in August 1844. It included poems ‘The Cry of the Children’, ‘A Drama of Exile’ and ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’.
Having waited eagerly for the reviews, Barrett Browning was pleased on the whole. Positive, substantial reviews came out in both England and America. In particular, Barrett Browning was delighted by the journalist Harriet Martineau’s comments on her ‘originality’ and ‘immense advances’. With this collection Barrett Browning was firmly established as a leading poet of the age.
Poems included a number of pieces exploring social inequality and written in response to her friend Mary Mitford’s encouragement to write ‘poems of feeling and human actions’. ‘The Cry of the Children’, sentimental yet politically-charged and heaving with genuine empathy, was the most influential poem in the collection. Its lesser-known partner poem, ‘The Cry of the Human’, focuses on the impact of the controversial Corn Laws.
Barrett Browning's socially engaged poetry also extended to exploring gender issues. The sonnet pair ‘To George Sand: A Desire’ and ‘To George Sand: A Recognition’, for instance, were written in praise of the French female novelist. Regarded as some of Barrett Browning’s most difficult poetry, they address the issues women writers face within a patriarchal society.
Moreover, the sonnets anticipate Virginia Woolf’s theory of the androgynous mind; the notion that the creative mind flourishes when a balance between the female/feminine and male/masculine is achieved. It entails being unconscious of, and thereby unrestrained by, biological sex. Compare the opening line of ‘A Desire’, ‘Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,’ and the following passage from A Room of One’s Own:
… in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.