Elizabeth Barrett Browning: style, subject and reception

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: style, subject and reception

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic form encompasses lyric, ballad and narrative, while engaging with historical events, religious belief and contemporary political opinion. Dr Simon Avery considers how her experimentation with both the style and subject of her poetry affected its reception during the 19th century.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the great experimenters in 19th-century poetry. By the time of her marriage to Robert Browning in September 1846, she was recognised internationally for her often innovative and challenging verse and was heralded by many as one of the most accomplished poets of the period. Indeed, when William Wordsworth died in 1850, Barrett Browning was seriously considered as his successor to the post of Poet Laureate. Although the post would eventually be awarded to Alfred Tennyson – the first woman to become Laureate would be Carol Ann Duffy in 2009 – the debate around Barrett Browning’s eligibility demonstrates the stature she had achieved.

'The Laureateship' from the Daily News, 1850

The Laureateship' from the Daily News, 1850 [page: 6]

Letter from a member of the public to the Daily News suggesting that Elizabeth Barrett Browning should be considered as Poet Laureate, 1850.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © British Library Board
Held by © British Library Board

Breaking conventions

Barrett Browning had been working towards this position for several decades and had continually sought to push boundaries in terms of both style and subject matter. Certainly she was never one to stay within conventions, even if this meant that reviewers were often highly critical of her work. Her original and experimental approach began early with her first major poem, The Battle of Marathon, which she wrote in her early teens and which was privately printed by her father in 1820. This work is nothing less than a four-book epic which focuses on the key battle of the Ancient Greeks against the Persians in 490 CE. Including impressive depictions of warfare, the classical hero figure, and the machinations of the gods, it is a startlingly bold beginning for a young poet.

The Battle of Marathon initiated Barrett Browning’s consistent desire to test different styles and forms of poetry and to tackle complex subject matters. Her subsequent volume, An Essay on Mind, and Other Poems (1826), was another bold intervention in this way. The title poem is a long verse essay written in the style of the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, in which Barrett Browning explores the notion of genius as it is manifested in the work of a wide range of historians, philosophers, scientists and poets spanning from the classical age to the present. Assessing and judging their contributions to the advancement of knowledge, Barrett Browning is particularly (and unsurprisingly) keen to emphasise the central place of poetry in society. While An Essay on Mind received little attention from reviewers, Barrett Browning nevertheless later recognised its importance to her development, reflecting that the poem was ‘not without traces of an individual thinking and feeling’.[1]

Religion

Over the next three decades, Barrett Browning would write poetry in all the major forms available to her and in a wide variety of styles. During the 1830s she would continue to develop her skills in lyric poetry and also start to explore the possibilities of the religious poem. Her 1838 volume, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, for example, contains a number of engaging religious works such as ‘Isobel’s Child’, ‘The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus’ and ‘The Weeping Saviour’, while the long title work is structured as a highly innovative dialogue poem spoken by two angels who leave Heaven to watch the Crucifixion of Christ. This is an astonishing depiction which also enabled Barrett Browning to use the angels to debate a range of major theological issues. As a result of its subject matter, however, contemporary reviews of the poem were not always favourable, with The Examiner, for example, suggesting that Barrett Browning was ‘in danger of being spoiled by over-ambition,’ and the Athenaeum arguing that she lacked ‘discriminating taste’.[2] Nevertheless, the poem was important in many ways and, along with the later A Drama of Exile (published in Poems, 1844), stands as a testament to Barrett Browning’s rigorous intellectual engagement with religious ideas.

The ballad form

Alongside this experimentation with religious poetry, Barrett Browning also began to engage with the ballad form, which she inherited from Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walter Scott. With its strong narrative lines and scenes of tension and conflict, often set in historical settings, the ballad was extremely popular with 19th-century readers. Again, though, Barrett Browning took this form and manipulated it, in this case so that she could use it to reflect upon the problems faced by many women in her contemporary society. Poems such as ‘A Romance of the Ganges’, ‘The Romance of the Swan’s Nest’ and ‘The Romaunt of the Page’,[3] for example, focus on female protagonists whose experiences with men expose emotional and sexual relationships to be founded upon disillusionment and brutal power games. Such poems are challenging and questioning even if – or maybe because – the women usually die or are silenced at the end of them. Certainly, they had a large influence on the next generation of poets – such as Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – and attracted particular attention from a number of feminist critics in the second half of the 20th century who were keen to examine the complexities of Barrett Browning’s thinking about love.[4]

Letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Thomas Westwood, 1843-53

Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning discussing her admiration for Wordsworth, 1843.

View images from this item  (23)

Usage terms Creative Commons Attribution licence
Held by © The Provost and Fellows of Eton College

Political engagement

At the end of her 1844 volume, Poems, Barrett Browning included a ballad, Lady Geraldine’s Courtship: A Romance of the Age, which confirmed her commitment to writing about the present day and political concerns. She had, of course, always been interested in politics but now it increasingly became a key drive in her aesthetics. Poems such as ‘The Cry of the Children’, with its strong attack on the abuse of children in mines and factories; ‘The Cry of the Human’, an exposé of the impact of the Corn Laws; and ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, a forceful and shocking critique of American slavery spoken by a black female slave, see Barrett Browning defiantly voicing her opinions on social and political oppression and experimenting stylistically in order to achieve this. Unsurprisingly, the critical response to such poems was split with some reviewers admiring her bold stance and others fiercely condemning her for speaking on issues which a woman supposedly should not touch. Equally problematic was her use of half rhymes and imagery derived from the female body which conservative reviewers often questioned or found shocking.

Typically, however, Barrett Browning refused to be silenced or contained by such condemnation. Indeed, the poetry she wrote across the remainder of her life was increasingly combative and politically engaged. With her move to Florence following her marriage to Robert Browning, she tackled head-on the major issue in contemporary Italian politics, the push for national unification, in both Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and the later collection, Poems Before Congress (1860). Uncompromisingly, she used these works to criticise the Austrian occupation of parts of Italy, the lack of strong Italian leadership, the machinations of the Catholic Church, and Britain’s policy of non-intervention. Yet while her work on the Italian Question would bring her much support from artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries, including the likes of George Henry Lewes, Charles Kingsley and Giuseppe Mazzini, many reviewers still found her writings too controversial.

Manuscript draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'

Manuscript draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'

Manuscript draft of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', 1846.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Creative Commons Attribution licence
Held by © The Provost and Fellows of Eton College

Letter from Robert Browning to his son Pen, discussing Edward FitzGerald's attack on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 13 July 1889

Letter from Robert Browning to his son Pen, discussing Edward FitzGerald's attack on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 13 July 1889

Aurora Leigh’s new ideas about gender led to it being criticised in the press; in this letter to his son Robert Browning recounts Edward Fitzgerald’s vicious attack, 1889.

View images from this item  (3)

Usage terms Public Domain

Aurora Leigh

It was in the middle of these two Italian volumes, though, that Barrett Browning published her most extensive, controversial, challenging and thought-provoking work, Aurora Leigh (1856). A nine-book epic which follows the development of the eponymous heroine into a successful poet, Aurora Leigh is radical both in terms of content and style. Dealing with issues such as industrialisation, women’s education, the fallen woman, socialism, and life in the new urban spaces, and full of intricate imagery and challenging rhetoric, the work is a hybrid form which Barrett Browning termed her ‘novel-poem’.[5] And right at the very heart of this poem is Barrett Browning’s assertion of the need to tackle modern concerns and not be caught in the past:

… if there’s room for poets in this world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles. (Book V, ll. 200-07)

‘Never flinch,’ Aurora asserts (l. 213), but deal boldly with modern life. Certainly, it was this unflinching stance that Barrett Browning herself adopted, both in her major poem and throughout her career overall. Her style may not have been conventional and reception of her work would therefore always be mixed – the Dublin University Review considered Aurora Leigh ‘coarse in expression and unfeminine in thought,’ for example, while the novelist George Eliot considered it ‘the greatest poem’ by ‘a woman of genius’[6] – yet Barrett Browning was never fazed by criticism and would continue to be a risk-taker in both style and subject matter to the end.

Footnotes

[1] The Browning’s Correspondence, ed. by Phillip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, 20 vols. (London: Wedgestone Press, 1989), vii, p. 354.

[2] The Browning’s Correspondence, ed. by Phillip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, 20 vols. (London: Wedgestone Press, 1986), iv, p. 375.

[3] Here Barrett Browning uses the Middle English word, derived from Old French, for ‘romance’.

[4] See, for example, Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1986); Glennis Stephenson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love (Ann Arbor, Mich.: U.M.I. Research, 1989); Marjorie Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995).

[5] The Browning’s Correspondence, ed. by Phillip Kelley and Scott Lewis, 20 vols. (London: Wedgestone Press, 1992), x, p. 102.

[6] Dublin University Review, quoted in Aurora Leigh, ed. by Cora Kaplan (London: Virago, 1978), p. 13; George Eliot, Westminster Review, January 1857, quoted in Aurora Leigh, ed. by Margaret Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 407.

  • Simon Avery
  • Dr Simon Avery is Reader in Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Westminster. His publications include Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2011), Mary Coleridge: Selected Poems (2010), Thomas Hardy: A Reader's Guide (2009) and the Broadview edition of Hardy's The Return of the Native (2013). He is currently working on a study of modernity and place in the late-Victorian period and various projects concerning the history of Queer London.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.