1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 605-06.



ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, of England, one of the most distinguished female poets of the ago, is still young, and with her habits of study, will probably enrich the world with many precious gems of thought, in addition to her works already produced. Her maiden name was Barrett, under which she achieved her poetical reputation. In 1846, she was married to Robert Browning, a poet and dramatic writer of much celebrity, author of "Paracelsus" and several tragedies. This gifted couple, whose tastes as well as talents are congenial, seem destined to ascend together the hill of Fame. Mrs. Browning is probably more versed in classical learning, and a more complete scholar, than any of her sex now living. Her mind is also well stored with general literature: with an energy and fore of character truly rare, she brought out the powers of her mind, and cultivated its faculties, during a wearying illness, which confined her for many years to her apartment. Shut out from the influences of external nature, she surrounded herself with the flowers of poetry, and created tints of the imagination to give unfading radiance to a room the sun's rays never entered. Mrs. Browning enjoys the friendship and correspondence of many of the most eminent men and women of the day, by whom she is justly valued for her abilities and excellence.

She has written in prose some treatises on "The Greek Christian Poets," which are said to be admirable, and among her friends her talents as a letter-writer are quite celebrated. Whether she is destined to go down to posterity as a great poet, is a point that will bear discussion; energy, learning, a romantic melancholy chastened by faith, and sincere piety, are found everywhere through her works; she also possesses an exuberance of fancy, and her memory is stored with expressions of the poets of the highest stamp. Do these gifts constitute poetry?

"Mrs. Browning," says a distinguished scholar, (Rev. George W. Bethune,) when commenting on her poems, "is singularly bold and adventurous. Her wing carries her, without faltering at their obscurity, into the cloud and the mist, where not seldom we fail to follow her, but are tempted, while we admire the honesty of her enthusiasm, to believe that she utters what she herself has but dimly perceived. Much of this, however, arises from her disdain of carefulness. Her lines are often rude, her rhymes forced, from impatience rather than affectation; and for the same reason, she falls into the kindred fault of verboseness, which is always obscure. She forgets the advice which Aspasia gave a young poet, 'to sow with the hand, and not with the bag.' Her Greek studies should have taught her more sculptor-like finish and dignity; but the glowing, generous impulses of her woman's heart are too much for the discipline of the classics. Hence it is that we like her less as a scholar than as a woman; for then she compels our sympathy with her high religious faith, her love of children, her delight in the graceful and beautiful, her revelations of feminine feeling, her sorrow over the suffering, and her indignation against the oppressor. It is easy to see, from the melody of rhythm in 'Cowper's Grave,' and a few shorter pieces, that her faults spring not from inability to avoid them, if she would. Her ear, like that of Tennyson (whom she resembles more than any other poet), thirsts for a refrain; and like him, she indulges it to the weariness of her reader. Her sonnets, though complete in measure, are more like fragments, or unfinished outlines: but not a few of them are full of vigour. Her verses must be recited; none of them could be sung."

But if the melody of rhythm is sometimes wanting in her lines, the sweet grace of patience, the divine harmony of faith and love, seem ever abiding in her soul. She is among those women who do honour to their sex, and uplift the heart of humanity. Many of her shorter poems are exquisite in their touches of tenderness and devotional pathos. The power of passion is rarely exhibited, in its lava-like flood, on her pure pages; but deep affection and true piety of feeling meet us everywhere, and the sweet, holy emotions of woman's love are truthfully depicted; and thus her great abilities, guided by purity of thought, and hallowed by religious faith, are made blessings to the world.

The published works of Mrs. Browning are: "The Seraphim," "Prometheus Bound," "A Drama of Exile," "The Romaunt of Margaret," "Isobel's Child," "Sonnets," and ''Miscellaneous Poems."

Her own appreciation of the holy office of the true poet, is thus glowingly expressed in the Preface to her poems. "'An irreligious poet,' said Burns, meaning an undevotional one, 'is a monster.' An irreligious poet, he might have said, is no poet at all. The gravitation of poetry is upwards. The poetic wing, if it move, ascends. What did even the heathen Greeks — Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar? Sublimely, because born poets; darkly, because born of Adam and unrenewed in Christ, their spirits wandered like the rushing chariots and winged horses, black and white, of their brother-poet, Plato, through the universe of Deity, seeking if haply they might find HIM: and as that universe closed around the seekers, not with the transparency in which it flowed first from His hand, but opaquely, as double-dyed with the transgression of its sons,they felt though they could not discern the God beyond, and used the gesture though ignorant of the language of worshipping. The blind eagle missed the sun, but soared towards its sphere. Shall the blind eagle soar — and the seeing eagle peek chaff? Surely it should be the gladness and the gratitude of such as are poets among us, that in turning towards the beautiful, they may behold the true face of God."