Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by William Thomas Arnold
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (18061861)
[Published Prometheus Bound and other poems, 1835; the Seraphim and other poems, 1838; Romaunt of the Page, 1839; two volumes of Poems, 1844; married Robert Browning, 1846; published Casa Guidi Windows, 1848; Aurora Leigh, 1856; Poems before Congress, 1860. The Last Poems were published posthumously in 1862, with a dedication to grateful Florence, in allusion to the inscription on the tablet which after her death the city of Florence had put up in her honour.]
ELIZABETH BARRETT began verse-making at a very early age. Besides the unacknowledged Essay on Mind, an attempt in the style of Pope, which was written when she was a mere girl, she translated Prometheus Bound before she was twenty. Writing to her friend Mr. Horne, under the date of Oct. 5, 1843, she says:
Most of my events and nearly all my intense pleasures have passed in my thoughts. I wrote versesas I daresay many have done who never wrote any poemsvery early; at eight years old and earlier. But, what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me, and from that day to this poetry has been a distinct object with mean object to read, think, and live for. And I could make you laugh, although you could not make the public laugh, by the narrative of nascent odes, epics, and didactics crying aloud on obsolete Muses from childish lips.
Her life seems to have been a happy one till she was growing into womanhood. Then two things happened, at no great distance of time from one another, which altered and saddened it. Of the impression she made upon all who saw her before her great trial and sorrow came upon her let her old and tried friend Miss Mitford speak:
My first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett commenced about fifteen years ago. She was certainly one of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same; so that it is not merely the impression of my partiality or my enthusiasm. Of a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes richly fringed by dark eyelashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend in whose carriage we went together to Chiswick that the translatress of the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was out. Through the kindness of another invaluable friend, to whom I owe many obligations, but none so great as this, I saw much of her during my stay in town. We met so constantly and so familiarly, that in spite of the difference of age, intimacy ripened into friendship, and after my return into the country we corresponded freely and frequently, her letters being just what letters ought to beher own talk put upon paper.
The beginning of her trials came next year, when she broke a blood-vessel upon the lungs, which refused to heal. On the approach of winter the family doctor ordered her to a warmer climate, and her elder brother, who seems by all accounts to have been worthy of his sister, accompanied her to Torquay. His death by drowningthe sailing boat in which he was sank in sight of the house, and the body was not recoverednearly killed his sister. She conceived a horror of Torquay, and had to be brought back to London in an invalid carriage. Returned to London, says Miss Milford, she began the life which she continued for so many years, confined to one large and commodiously darkened chamber, admitting only her own affectionate family and a few devoted friends reading almost every book worth reading in almost every language, and giving herself heart and soul to that poetry of which she seemed born to be the priestess. This way of life lasted for many years. It was dignified by high thinking and strenuous endeavour, and sweetened by the intercourse of a few congenial minds; but it was wholly outside the main current of the world, and it threw the poetess to an excessive extent upon her own inner consciousness for the materials of her poetry. This fact explains some of the defects of which we are conscious in a sustained reading of her poetical works. If her muse seems to dwell in a somewhat transcendental atmosphere, a little remote from the realities of the work-a-day world, if her portrayal of human nature is a little wanting in complexity and variety, and hardly seems born of contact with men and women as they are, that is not to be wondered at. Her happy marriage lifted her out of the bookish seclusion in which she had lived for many years; and the immediate strength and activity which happiness brought with it makes us suspect that hitherto her friends and relations had encouraged her into thinking herself more of an invalid than she really was. The new and stirring world of political and intellectual activity into which her residence in Italy now transported her, soon made its way into her poetry, and left its mark. But the effects of her long seclusion never wore out, though here and there we may find them obliterated for a moment; and in the most ambitious of her later poems, Aurora Leigh (a noble and admirable effort, though we should hardly agree with Mr. Ruskin in calling it the greatest poem which the century has produced in any language), we feel the lack of that sure and sane knowledge of human nature which, as Miss Mitford truly said,though the remark was not intended to apply to her friend,is the salt of literature.
One thing at all events Elizabeth Barrett gained from her years of studious seclusionan accurate knowledge of most of the great poetry of the world. Her knowledge of Greek was wide if not profound, and she was familiar with the chief modern literatures. She had read English poetry with a thoroughness and a discrimination which is testified as much by her Vision of Poets as by her Essay on English Poetry. The English poets of her own day were intimately known to her. Her first volume shows traces of study of Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, and the study has been deep enough to result rather in assimilation than imitation. Later on she became a great admirer of Tennyson, whom she called a divine poet, though she warmly disclaimed the charge of imitating him. She may be described essentially as a learned poetess, and her wide knowledge of poetical forms explains her readiness to invent or reproduce difficult and elaborate metres. With these difficulties she has not always contended successfully. Her rhymes are often illegitimate, her words often far-fetched, and occasionally even ungrammatical. The splendid dash and energy with which she throws herself at a difficult piece of work should not blind us to the fact that after all its difficulties are sometimes evaded rather than met. She will not have it that this is for any want of due care or industry on her part. Writing to Mr. Horne, she says in terms very similar to those employed by Wordsworth in rebutting a similar charge:
If I fail ultimately before the publicthat is before the people, for an ephemeral popularity does not appear to me worth trying forit will not be because I have shrunk from the amount of labour, where labour could do anything. I have worked at poetry; it has not been with me reverie, bat art. As the physician and lawyer work at their several professions, so have I, and so do I, apply to mine. And this I say, only to put by any charge of carelessness which may rise up to the verge of your lips or thoughts.
Nevertheless in that correspondence between herself and Mr. Horne on her system of rhyming, which forms perhaps the most valuable part of the work that Mr. Horne has dedicated to her memory, there can be no doubt that Mr. Horne gets the best of the argument. He maintained that the fact was, whether the poetess intended it or not, that she was introducing a system of rhyming the first syllables and leaving the rest to a question of euphonious quantity. His criticism was particularly directed against the rhymes in the Dead Pan, which the authoress as energetically defended. Miss Mitford, who was always candid in her judgment of her friend, supported Mr. Hornes view.
It will of course be understood that we are not complaining of that occasional violation of exact rhyme which only adds to the general harmony. No one with an ear would think of complaining of such a stanza as this from the Vision of Poets
Cleaving the incense clouds that rise
With winking unaccustomed eyes,
And lovelocks smelling sweet of spice.
But what of this from The Lost Bower?
Face to face with the true mountains
I stood silently and still,
Drawing strength from fancys dauntings,
From the air about the hill,
And from Natures open mercies a most debonair good will.
or this from The Dead Pan?
Christ hath sent us down the angels;
And the whole earth and the skies
Are illumed by altar-candles
Lit for blessed mysteries.
Take, again, the sonnet called Patience taught by Nature. There are only two rhymes in the octave, and one set of four is thus made upbirds, herds, girds, swards. Birds is an almost impracticable rhyme for the octave of a Petrarchan sonnet, and obviously the poetess has not solved the difficulty implied in starting upon it. But licence in rhyming is not the only licence she permits herself. Her use of words is often capricious and extravagant. She turns substantives into adjectives, she adds an adverbial termination to an adverb, she invents outright dozens of words, as she is hard pressed for a rhyme. Here for instance she secures an admirable effect by a wrong use of a Chaucerian adjective:
And Keats the real
Adonis with the hymeneal
Fresh vernal buds half sunk between
His youthful curls, kissed straight and sheen
In his Rome-grave by Venus queen.
(Vision of Poets.)
In an exquisite stanza she finds a rhyme for morning in many a mists inurning. In another place we have
When beneath the palace-lattice
You ride slow as you have done,
And you see a face there, that is
Not the old familiar one,
Will you oftly
Here ye watched me morn and een,
Sweetest eyes, were ever seen!
That oftly is terrible. This kind of catalogue could be extended indefinitely. Such words as fantasque, percipiency, humiliant, vatic, sentiency, aspectable, horrent are current coin in her language, and often give it a fantastic air. She is a little spoilt by that over-effluence of music, which she herself blamed in Barry Cornwall. The delight in beautifully sounding words is as great with her as it was with Keats; but Keats, though he allowed himself considerable latitude in his blank verse (Hyperion is full of coined and curious words), was most rigorous with himself in his rhymed verse. A poet who is enamoured of perfection will allow himself liberties anywhere and everywhere except for the sake of evading a difficulty. Now enamoured of perfection Mrs. Browning was not. The poems which, from what may be called a technical point of view, may be counted irreproachable, may, if we except the Sonnets, almost be reckoned on the fingers. Her Sonnets are among the very best work she has produced. Perhaps indeed her greatest poetic success is to be found in the Sonnets from the Portuguese,sonnets, it need hardly be said, which are not from the Portuguese at all, but are the faintly disguised presentment of the writers most intimate experience. Into the sonnets narrow room she has poured the full flood of her profoundest thought, and yet the minuteness and exquisiteness of the mould has at the same time compelled a rigorous pruning alike of superabundant imagery and of harmonious verbosity, which has had the happiest results. She is one of the greatest sonnet writers in our language, worthy for this at all events to be ranked side by side with Milton and with Wordsworth.
Our own generation is probably inclined to give the poetess less than her due, and for obvious reasons. The art of verse-making has been carried to a point of technical perfection that she hardly dreamt of, and her laxity offends. Moreover, her innocent and heartfelt enthusiasms fall a little dully on the ear of a perverse and critical generation. We should call her naive, almost silly, where she has merely been artless and confiding. Her enthusiasm for Bulwer Lyttons weaker work and the traces of his influence on her earlier poems we cannot easily away with. There are passages in Aurora Leigh, particularly the passages describing the bad people, which might make an unkindly critic describe the authoress as a hysterical school-girl; and indeed it would not be easy to confute the critic, except by putting passage against passage, and showing how, with her, a lapse is always followed by a rise. What valuable and original elements her thought possesses have for the most part been absorbed long ago, have become common property, and are no longer recognisable as hers. The great struggle for Italian unity has inspired some of her best verses, and that struggle has already become very much a matter of ancient history. Yet in spite of all deductions that can be madedeductions, be it remembered, which are sometimes to be counted against the reader, and only sometimes against the poetessshe remains an attractive and delightful personage, and she has stamped enough of herself upon her poetry to give it an enduring charm. Her deep tenderness and genuineness of feeling, showing themselves in such poems as the Cry of the Children or Cowpers Grave, will never fail of their rightful power. She has touched all the chief human relationships, that of friend and friend, that of husband and wife, that of mother and child, with an exquisite insight and sensitiveness and delicacy, and her style, when she touches them, attains almost always that noble and severe simplicity which is so greatly to be preferred to her most luscious and copious versification. She has added a charm to motherhood only less than that added by Raffaelle himself, and the pleasant fate will be hers of being faithfully read by many a generation of youthful lovers.