Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 7:123-24.

The highest place among our modern poetesses must be claimed for Mrs. BROWNING, formerly Miss Barrett. In purity and loftiness of sentiment and feeling, and in intellectual power, she is excelled only by Tennyson, whose best works, it is evident, she had carefully studied. Her earlier style reminds us more of Shelley, but this arises from similarity of genius and classical tastes, not imitation. The first publication of this accomplished lady, was an Essay on Mind, and other Poems, said to have been written in her seventeenth year. In 1833 appeared her translation of the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, of which she has since given an improved version. In 1838 she ventured on a second volume of original poetry, The Seraphim, and other Poems, which was followed by The Romance of the Page, 1839. About this time a personal calamity occurred to the poetess, which has been detailed by Miss Mitford in her Literary Recollections. She burst a blood-vessel in the lungs, and after a twelve-month's confinement at home, was ordered to a milder climate. She went with some relatives to reside at Torquay, and there a fatal event took place "which saddened her bloom of youth, and hue of thought and feeling, especially devotional feeling, to her poetry." Her favourite brother, with two other young men, his friends, having embarked on board a small vessel for a sail of a few hours, the boat went down, and all on board perished. This tragedy completely prostrated Miss Barrett. She was not able to be removed to her father's house in London till the following year, and on her return home she "began that life," says Miss Mitford, "which she continued for many years — confined to a darkened chamber, to which only her own family and a few devoted friends were admitted; reading meanwhile almost every book worth reading in almost every language, studying with ever-fresh delight the great classic authors in the original, and giving herself, heart and soul, to that poetry of which she seemed born to be the priestess." Miss Mitford had presented her friend with a young spaniel, "Flush, my dog," and the companionship of this humble but faithful object of sympathy, has been commemorated in some beautiful verses, graphic as the pencil of Landseer:

Yet, my pretty, sportive friend,
Little is't to such an end
That I praise thy rareness?
Other dogs may be thy peers
Haply in these drooping ears,
And this glossy fairness.

But of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary.—
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.

Roses, gathered for a vase,
In that chamber died apace,
Beam and breeze resigning.
This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when light is gone,
Love remains for shining.

Other dogs in thymy dew
Tracked the hares and followed through
Sunny moor or meadow.
This dog only, crept and crept
Next a languid cheek that slept,
Sharing in the shadow.

Other dogs of loyal cheer
Bounded at the whistle clear,
Up the woodside hieing.
This dog only, watched in reach
Of a faintly uttered speech,
Or a louder sighing.

And if one or two quick tears
Dropped upon his glossy ears,
Or a sigh came double—
Up he sprang in eager haste,
Fawning, fondling, breathing fast,
In a tender trouble.

And this dog was satisfied
If a pale thin hand would glide
Down his dewlaps sloping—
Which he pushed his nose within,
After — platforming his chin
On the palm left open.

The result of those years of seclusion and study was partly seen by the publication in 1844 of two volumes of Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett, many of which bore the impress of deep and melancholy thought, and of high and fervid imagination. "Poetry," said the authoress in her preface, "has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing. 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: and as work I offer it to the public: feeling its shortcomings more deeply than any of my readers, because measured from the height of my aspiration; but feeling also that the reverence and sincerity with which the work was done, should give it some protection with the reverent and sincere." To each of the principal poems in the collection explanatory notices were given. Thus, of A Drama of Exile, she says, the subject was "the new and strange experience of the fallen humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the wilderness, with a peculiar reference to Eve's allotted grief, which, considering that self-sacrifice belonged to her womanhood, and the consciousness of originating the Fall to her offence, appeared to me imperfectly apprehended hitherto, and more expressible by a woman than a man." The pervading principle of the drama is love — love which conquers even Lucifer

The essence of all beauty, I call love.
The attribute, the evidence, and end,
The consummation to the inward sense,
Of beauty apprehended from without,
I still call love. As form, when colourless,
Is nothing to the eye — that pine-tree there,
Without its black and green, being all a blank—
So, without love, is beauty undiscerned
In man or angel. Angel! rather ask
What love is in thee, what love moves to thee,
And what collateral love moves on with thee;
Then shalt thou know if thou art beautiful.

Love! what is love? I lose it. Beauty and love!
I darken to the image. Beauty — love!
[He fades away while a low music sounds.

Thou art pale, Eve.

The precipice of ill
Down this colossal nature, dizzies me—
And, hark! the starry harmony remote
Seems measuring the heights from whence he fell.

Think that we have not fallen so. By the hope
And aspiration, by the love and faith,
We do exceed the stature of this angel.

Happier we are than he is, by the death.

Or rather, by the life of the Lord God!
How dim the angel grows. as if that blast
Of music swept him back into the dark.

Notwithstanding a few fine passages, A Drama of Exile cannot be considered a successful effort. The scheme of the poetess wan perfectly developed, and may of the colloquies of Adam and Eve, and of Lucifer and Gabriel, are forced and unnatural. The lyrics interspersed throughout the poem are often harsh and unmusical, and the whole drama is deficient in action and interest. In A Vision of Poets, Miss Barrett endeavoured to vindicate the necessary relations of genius to suffering and self-sacrifice. "I have attempted," she says "to express in this poem my view of the mission of the poet, of the duty and glory of what Balzac has beautifully and truly called 'la patience angelique du genie,' and of the obvious truth, above all, that if knowledge is power, suffering should be acceptable as a part of knowledge." The discipline of suffering and sorrow which the poetess had herself undergone, suggested or coloured these and similar speculations. The affliction which saddened had also purified the heart, and brought with it the precious fruits of resignation and faith. This is an old and familiar philosophy, and Miss Barrett's prose exposition of it must afterwards have appeared to her superfluous, for she omitted the preface in the later editions of her works. The truth is, all such personal revelations, though sanctioned by the examples of Dryden and Wordsworth, have inevitably an air of egotism and pedantry. Poetry is better able than painting or sculpture to disclose the object and feeling of the artist, an no one ever dreamt of confining those arts — the exponents of every range of feeling, conception, and emotion — to the mere office of administering pleasure. A Vision of Poets opens thus beautifully:

A poet could not sleep aright,
For his soul kept lip too much light
Under his eyelids for the night.

And thus he rose disquieted
With sweet rhymes ringing through his head,
And in the forest wandered.

Where, sloping up the darkest glades,
The moon had drawn long colonnades,
Upon whose floor the verdure fades,

To a faint silver — pavement fair
The antique wood-nymphs scarce would dare
To foot-print o'er, had such been there—

He meets a lady whose mystical duty it is to "crown all poets to their worth," and he obtains a sight of some of the great masters of song — "the dead kings of melody" — who are characterised in brief but felicitous descriptions. A few of these we subjoin:

Here, Homer, with the broad suspense
Of thunderous brows, and lips intense
Of garrulous god-innocence.

There Shakspeare, on whose forehead climb
The crowns o' the world. Oh, eyes sublime,
With tears and laughter for all time!

Euripide, with close and mild
Scholastic lips — that could be wild,
And laugh or sob out like a child.

Theocritus, with glittering locks
Dropt sideway, as betwixt the rocks
He watched the visionary flocks.

The moderns, from Milton down to "poor proud Byron," are less happily portrayed; but in spite of many blemishes, and especially the want of careful artistic finishing, this poem is one of great excellence. There are other imaginative pieces of the authoress of a more popular character — as the Rhyme of the Duchess May, a romantic ballad full of passion, incident, and melody; and Bertha in the Lane, a story of the transfer of affection from one sister to another, related by the elder and dying sister in a strain of great beauty and pathos. One stanza will shew the style and versification of this poem:

And, dear Bertha, let me keep
On my hand this little ring,
Which at nights, when others sleep,
I can still see glittering.
Let me wear it out of sight,
In the grave — where it will light
All the Dark up, day and night.

There are parts of this fine poem resembling Tennyson's May Queen, but the laureate would never have admitted such an incongruous and spasmodic stanza as that with which Miss Barrett unhappily closes her piece:

Jesus, Victim, comprehending
Love's divine self-abnegation,
Cleanse my love in its self-spending,
And absorb the poor libation!
Wind my thread of life up higher,
Up, through angel's hands of fire!—
I aspire while I expire.

The most finished of Miss Barrett's smaller poems — apart from the sonnets — are the verses on Cowper's Grave, which contain not one jarring line or expression, and The Cry of the Children, a pathetic and impassioned pleading for the poor children who toil in mines and factories. In individuality and intensity of feeling, this piece resembles Hood's Song of the Shirt, but it infinitely surpasses it in poetry and imagination.

Do ye hear the children weeping, O, my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;
The young birds are chirping in the nest;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free....

"For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap.
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping—
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark, underground—
All the day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.
"For all day, the wheels are droning, turning—
Their wind comes in our faces—
Till our hearts turn — our heads, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places.
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling—
Turns the long light that drops adown the wall—
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling—
All are turning, all the day, and we with all.
And all day, the iron wheels heels are droning,
And sometimes we could pray,
'O ye wheels' — breaking out in a mad moaning—
'Stop! be silent for to-day!'"

Ay! be silent! Let them bear each other breathing
For a moment, mouth to mouth!
Let the touch each other's hands, in a fresh wreathing
Of their tender human youth!
Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals.
Let them prove their ward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels!—
Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.

The Sonnets from the Portuguese are as passionate as Shakspeare's Sonnets, and we suspect the title, "from the Portuguese," has no better authority than Sir Walter Scott's "Old Play" at the head of the chapters of his novels. The first of these so-called translations is eminently beautiful — quite equal to Wordsworth, or to Wordsworth's model, Milton:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove:
"Guess now who holds thee?" — "Death!" I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang: "Not Death, but Love."

An interval of some years elapsed ere Miss Barrett came forward with another volume, though she was occasionally seen as a contributor to literary journals. She became in 1846 the wife of a kindred spirit, Robert Browning, the poet, and removed with him to Italy. In Florence she witnessed the revolutionary outbreak of 1848, and this furnished the theme of her next important work, Casa Guidi Windows, a poem containing "the impressions of the writer upon events in Tuscany of which she was a witness" from the windows of her house, the Casa Guidi in Florence. The poem is a spirited semi-political narrative of actual events and genuine feelings. Part might pass for the work of Byron — so free is its versification, and so warm the affection of Mrs. Browning for Italy and the Italians — but there are also passages that would have served better for a prose pamphlet. The genius of the poetess had become practical and energetic — inspirited by what she saw around her, and by the new tie which, as we learn from this pleasing poem, now brightened her visions of the future:

The sun strikes, through the windows, up the floor:
Stand out in it, my young Florentine,
Not two years old, and let me see thee more! . . .
And fix thy brave blue English eyes on mine,
And from my soul, which fronts the future so,
With unabashed and unabated gaze,
Teach me to hope for, what the angels know
When they smile clear as thou dost.

In 1856 appeared Aurora Leigh, an elaborate poem or novel in blank verse, which Mrs. Browning characterises as the "most mature" of her works, and one into which her "highest convictions upon life and art are entered." It presents us, like Wordsworth's Prelude, with the history of a poetical mind — an autobiography of the heart and intellect; but Wordsworth, with all his contempt for literary "conventionalities," would never have ventured on such a sweeping departure from established critical rules and poetical diction as Mrs. Browning has here carried out. There is a prodigality of genius in the work, many just and fine remarks, ethical and critical, and passages evincing a keen insight into the human heart as well as into the working of our social institutions and artificial restraints. A noble hatred of falsehood, hypocrisy, and oppression breathes through the whole. But the materials of the poem are so strangely mingled and so discordant-prose and poetry so mixed up together — scenes of splendid passion and tears followed by dry metaphysical and polemical disquisitions, or rambling common-place conversation, that the effect of the poem as a whole, though splendid in parts, is unsatisfactory.

The thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elm's new leaves—
And then I turned, and held my finger up,
And bade him mark, that howsoe'er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it. At which word
His brow would soften — and he bore with me
In melancholy patience, not unkind,
While breaking into voluble ecstasy,
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use — the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets, hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold—
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Their tolerant horns and patient churning mouths
'Twixt dripping ash-boughs — hedgerows all alive
With birds, and goats, and large white butterflies,
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind—
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist;
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. "See," I said,
"And see, is God not with us on the earth?
And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
Who says there's nothing for the poor and vile,
Save poverty and wickedness? Behold!"
And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,
And clapped my hand, and called all very fair.

In 1860, Poems Before Congress evinced Mrs. Browning's unabated interest in Italy and its people. This was her last publication. She died on the 29th of June, 1861, at the Casa Guidi, Florence; and in front of the house, a marble tablet records that in it wrote and died Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who, by her song, created a golden link between Italy and England, and that in gratitude Florence had erected that memorial. In 1862 the literary remains of Mrs. Brown in were published under the title of Last Poems.