Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Critical and Biographical Essay by James Ashcroft Noble
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
 
CURIOUSLY enough, both the time and the place of the birth of Mrs. Browning have been made subjects of an unnecessarily heated controversy. That controversy need not be revived here. Mrs. Browning herself, in a letter to R. H. Horne, says distinctly that she was born in the county of Durham, and better authority we could not well have. Further investigation, moreover, confirms this statement, and it may now be accepted as established that Mrs. Browning was born at Coxoe Hall, Durham, on the 6th of March, in the year 1806. Her father was Mr. Edward Barrett Moulton, who, during his daughter’s infancy, inherited an estate from his maternal grandfather, and assumed the additional surname of Barrett. While Elizabeth was still a very young child the family removed from Durham to Herefordshire, where, at Hope End, near Ledbury, Mr. Barrett had built a country house—a picturesque place with Moorish turrets and windows, looking out upon an extensive and beautiful park. Here the little maiden played, cultivated white roses, rode her pony, and when eight years old, read Homer in the original, holding her book in one hand and nursing her doll upon her other arm. The doll comes pleasantly into the picture. Homer without it would have been rather awful, but the doll subdues his awfulness and makes the vision a thing of unalloyed beauty. Still, even Homer was not a task but a childish passion. Agamemnon and her pony shared her dream-chambers of imagery, but the king’s apartments were oftenest occupied. In these days, too, she began to write poetry—mainly about her friends the Greeks—and her epic, “The Battle of Marathon” in four books, produced about the age of eleven or twelve, was printed by the proud father. “Papa,” she writes, “was bent upon spoiling me;” but some people are not easily spoiled, and the little Elizabeth was one of them.  1
  She was about fifteen when she stepped over the outer edge of the shadow in which so much of her after life was spent. In attempting to saddle her pony she fell with the saddle upon her and received injuries to the spine, which condemned her to years of recumbency and disablement from all physical activities. Then, at twenty, came the death of her mother and an enforced migration from the beloved Hope End, two years at Sidmouth, and a second removal to Gloucester Place, London. Still a constant invalid, she was taken for her health’s sake to Torquay, and here the shadow darkened into blackness, for a beloved brother who had come to see her was drowned while boating, and thenceforward the sea-music in which she had rejoiced was to her a dirge. Then came more years of weakness and seclusion, made bearable only by her books, her pen,—busy always when the tired hand could hold it—and by the visits of a very few friends, chief among whom were Miss Mitford and her cousin John Kenyon, to whom in after years “Aurora Leigh” was dedicated. It was in 1846, when Elizabeth Barrett would be in her forty-first year that she, whose romance had heretofore been of imagination all compact, stepped into the enchanted ground, for Mr. Kenyon brought to Gloucester Place a new visitor in the person of Mr. Robert Browning. Browning’s work was already known and loved by her; she had paid a fine tribute to the rich humanity of “Bells and Pomegranates” in a well-known stanza of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship;” and there is a pretty but apparently unauthenticated story that Mr. Browning in the first instance sought the acquaintance of Miss Barrett in order to thank her for the words of gracious recognition. However this may have been, Mr. Browning came under Mr. Kenyon’s friendly wing,—came, saw, and became at once conqueror and conquered. The unyielding antagonism of Mr. Barrett—not it would seem to Mr. Browning in particular, but to any suitor whatever—rendered necessary a secret betrothal and marriage, and the latter event took place in the church of St. Marylebone on the 12th of September, 1846.  2
  Miss Barrett’s physician had declared that her life depended upon absence from England during the winter; and so the newly-wedded pair sped southward, taking Paris, Avignon, Vaucluse, and Pisa on their way to Florence, where Mrs. Browning was to find her final home; where in 1849 her boy, now Robert Barrett Browning the painter, was to be born to her; where she was to sing of sights seen from “Casa Guidi Windows,” to tell the story of “Aurora Leigh” and to write the “Poems before Congress,” in praise of the heroes of the fight for Italian liberty and unity, among whom her enthusiasm which, like charity, was able to believe all things, classed the Emperor Napoleon III. After her marriage, Mrs. Browning’s health perceptibly improved. She was still a fragile creature, but she was no longer a confirmed invalid; and her fifteen Italian years were fuller of intense vitality than all the years that had preceded them, except perhaps those of her bright childhood at Hope End, when she had felt her life in every limb. She and her husband were now encompassed by troops of friends; and it would be difficult to find pleasanter reading than some of their descriptions of the two poets and their surroundings, which Mrs. Richmond Ritchie quotes freely in the delightful memoir of Mrs. Browning contributed by her to the Dictionary of National Biography.  3
  But though love and Italy had done much for Mrs. Browning, they were powerless to prolong to its natural term her hold upon the life of earth. She was very ill when she received the news of the death of the patriot statesman Cavour, and the shock hastened the end, which came on the 30th of June, 1861. Like Dürer’s knight she had long held companionship with Death; and though the things from which he beckoned her were sweet and dear, she had learned to regard the beckoning face as not unkindly. It called to a short severance from love, but to an eternal severance from the weariness which had often made musical moan.
        “Enough! we’re tired, my heart and I.
  We sit beside the headstone thus,
  And wish that name were carved for us.
The moss reprints more tenderly
    The hard types of the mason’s knife
    As heaven’s sweet life renews earth’s life
With which we’re tired, my heart and I.”
  4
  Perhaps the first and the last, the strongest and most enduring impression stamped upon the mind by the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is that it is the poetry of instinct, or—to use a word which has of late become somewhat unfashionable—of inspiration. We feel that to her the measured but incalculable music of verse was what the common prose of the street or the drawing-room is to most of us, a natural and inevitable vehicle of expression,—that she saw and felt herself truly when she wrote in “Aurora Leigh”—
                        “My joy and pain,
My thought and aspiration, like the stops
Of flute or pipe, are absolutely dumb
Unless melodious.”
  5
  The word “inspiration” I have said has become unfashionable, it has given place to that much smaller word technique; and it may frankly be admitted that in those qualities of exquisite and flawless rendering which contribute to technical literary perfection Mrs. Browning’s work is frequently deficient. It may indeed be said that she is more obviously faulty than any poet who is equally distinguished; but, after all, faultiness in every kind of work is too common to stand in need of being laboriously pointed out, while distinction in any kind of work is somewhat rare; and where the latter is present the added presence of the former is of comparatively little moment. In any brief estimate it would indeed be foolish to waste space in dwelling upon the heresies of rhyme, the fantastic epithets, the incoherencies of phrase which are to be found by all who care to seek them in the books of the poet to whom we owe “The Sleep,” “The Cry of the Children,” “Aurora Leigh,” and the “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”  6
  If, as it is sometimes contended, the highest art must be art in which distinctively masculine and feminine characteristics disappear in some transcendental human synthesis which knows no sex, then assuredly the place of Mrs. Browning is below the highest, for she was pre-eminently a great woman poet, and not simply a woman who wrote great poetry. Though her work was in external form, sometimes narrative and sometimes dramatic, it was always in essence the poetry of self-expression—the poetry in which the treatment of external things, howsoever admirable in itself, is always subsidiary to the imaginative utterance of personal thought and emotion. In poetry of this kind typical masculine work and typical feminine work are distinguished from each other by the fact that in the former the thought comes first and inspires the emotion, while in the latter the emotion comes first and suggests the thought. “As I was musing the fire burned”;—that is an adequate description of the genesis of masculine poetry. In the poetry of womanhood the fire burns first and the musings, the thoughts, are generated by the warmth. It is thus in the work of Mrs. Browning. It has no lack of intellectual substance; on the contrary, it has been held by some that in “Aurora Leigh,” and elsewhere this intellectual substance is inartistically obtrusive; but the thought is always the child and vassal of emotion:—the brain is as alert as the pulse is strong, yet everywhere, in “Aurora Leigh,” in “Casa Guidi Windows,” and in the “Poems before Congress,” not less than in such intimately personal utterances as “A Denial,” “Inclusions,” and the Portuguese Sonnets “the heart still overrules the head.”  7
  This last wonderful, indeed unique series of poems—the noblest anthology for noble lovers which any literature has to show—provides striking illustrations both of the close combination of the passionate and the reflective element in Mrs. Browning’s verse, and of the dominance of the former over the latter. Take for example the well-known fourteenth number of the sequence,—a poem born of the strongest emotion in the heart of one beloved—the all-powerful desire to be loved for her very self, for what she is, not for what she has. “If thou must love me, let it be for love’s sake only,”—the fiery heart of the sonnet is in that first line: love me because I am I, not for my smile, my look, my way of gentle speech, my thought in accord with yours. And then as the fire burns the musing begins, the thought is born, the intellect supplies a justification for the emotion. These things are transient, and the love that is fixed upon them may not survive them; but the soul, the self, endures, and the love which is bound to it—to the essential not to the accidental—is therefore the love which lives on “through love’s eternity.”  8
  This method, if any habit so instinctive can be called a method, may be traced through the greater part of Mrs. Browning’s work; and it gives to that work an immediate charm for that majority of poetry-lovers who are one with the poet in reaching thought through feeling rather than feeling through thought. And this majority will respond with not less ready sympathy and appreciation to the special tone of the emotion,—the prevalent pensiveness and sadness which are all the more impressive because so obviously spontaneous, so entirely free from a suspicion of affectation. The domination of the mood of melancholy, manifests itself both in the choice of themes which lend themselves readily to its expression, and by the sombre treatment of other themes which are in themselves devoid of sombre suggestions. Many of the best known and most deservedly popular of Mrs. Browning’s shorter poems—“Confessions,” “The Mask,” “The Lay of the Brown Rosary,” “Bertha in the Lane,” and “The Cry of the Children”—are poems of unrelieved sadness; the hero and heroine of “Aurora Leigh” have to be taught life’s lesson by the anguish of failure; and even when, as in “The Sea-Mew,” she lights upon a theme which seems full of suggestions of the free joyousness of vivid life, the music is still in the minor key, for even the bright wild bird is drawn into the human shadow.
        “He lay down in his grief to die,
(First looking to the sea-like sky
That hath no waves) because, alas!
Our human touch did on him pass,
And with our touch, our agony.”
  9
  In spite, however, of its uniformity of emotional tone there is in Mrs. Browning’s work a variety of matter and form which render detailed comment altogether impossible here. The finest of her pure lyrics have the richness and the rapture of the song of the nightingale, with now and again a certain unearthliness in the melody, as if the singer were indeed what she was declared to be by the one who knew her best, “half-angel and half-bird.” Her narrative ballads have a swift directness and an impressive pictorialism which hold the imagination and stir the blood. In her sonnets, especially in the marvellous sequence purporting to be “from the Portuguese” the poet is seen at her loftiest altitude, for here art is as victorious as inspiration. The irresistibly winning individuality is as distinct as ever; but the style has cleared itself of its dross its occasional ruggedness, and grating grotesqueness, and has, without losing force, gained ease, clearness, balance, and all the qualities which in the mass we call classical. Many a great poet has his own peculiar honour: it was given to Mrs. Browning to render in perfect verse the very apotheosis of love. Concerning “Aurora Leigh” there will always be differences of opinion and feeling, for it exhibits the poet’s weakness not less manifestly than her strength. Its form is defective, its inspiration intermittent, its style unequal; it is greater in parts than as a whole; but if we regard its finest details of description and characterisation, if we weigh the nuggets of imaginative thought which we turn over on nearly every page, we may fairly pronounce it, with all its faults, one of the fullest and most opulent poems produced in this century by any English poet.  10
  The work of Mrs. Browning appeals to us by its fervidly eloquent rendering of imaginative vision, ethical fervour, and profound passion, employing the last word not in the special sense to which usage has confined it, but as comprehending all outgoings of strong emotion towards God, or country, or human fellows, or those aspects of nature which rouse within us love or awe, wonder or hushed delight. The sadness which utters itself in so much of her verse is the sadness of that keen sensation which brings exquisite sympathy, not the sadness of the dimmed faith which brings despair; and when the song which comes from her lips is most mournful the eye of the singer is fixed upon the far horizon with a look of hope. She lived in the shadow of human weakness, human sorrow, human disquietude, but she never failed in her witness to the light behind the cloud; and we discern the constant attitude of her nature in the tender and triumphant utterance which closes “The Rhyme of the Duchess May”:—

        “Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west,
And I said in underbreath,—All our life is mixed with death,
            And who knoweth which is best?
Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west,
And I smiled to think God’s greatness flowed around our incompleteness,—
            Round our restlessness, His rest.”
  11
 
 
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