1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 280-84.



What Felicia Hemans was to Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett is to Alfred Tennyson. In some degree they are reflexes; yet each has a high, peculiar, and speculative genius of their own. In her early writings, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was as lucid as Mary Howitt or Caroline Bowles, although her phraseology and style were always careless and disjointed, and her ear, alike for rhythm and rhyme, utterly untuned; but, in her literary progress, she has, like Thomas Carlyle and Emerson, been steadily becoming more and more inverted and involved, till she has bewildered her thoughts and her English in palpable obscurity and mysticism. To be aware of this we have only to contrast her early Sonnets with her latter; or her Grave of Cowper with her Drama of Exile.

The general effect of Mrs. Hemans' poetry may be compared to that of a Grecian temple perched on a green hill, in the open sunlight, and surrounded by its olive groves — a temple symmetric in its general design, and just in its particular portions, wherein are met elegance and grace and consummate art; that of Mrs. Browning, to a Gothic church, mossy and weather-stained, in a sequestered dell among gnarled old trees, overshading the grey tombstones of its venerable field of graves, with its pointed gables, its quaint niches, its grotesque corbels, and echoing aisles, its fretted worm-bored oak-work, and its faded velvet cushion brocaded with gold.

There is much of seriousness, nay, sadness, in the general tone of Mrs. Browning's verse, and it abounds with solemn questionings; but her speculations are for the most part, if not quite objectless, mere gropings and guessings in the dark. She has considerable inventiveness, yet without much variety, and almost nothing of art. Hence she has never given us, even for once, anything that can be regarded as either a finished portrait or picture, although she is always most successful when least ambitions — and her Little Elie, and her Bertha in the Lane, have something like proportion and individuality. She seems to satisfy herself with mere hasty sketches; and even in them we have want of outline, haziness, or exaggeration. We have occasionally the germ of fine things; but her blossoms, nipped by the canker-worm, seldom ripen into fruit. She seems never to dream of elaboration — her structures are mere walls without roofs; or, if we have these, the window-frames are left unglazed; shrubs grow in the front plot, but the wicket gate has been carelessly flung open, and the nibbling sheep have managed to make sad work with the flowers and evergreens. Her acquired knowledge is great; so is her intellectual capacity: the only faculty imperfectly cultivated is her taste; for her want of ear seems a natural and incurable defect. Hence it is that she is so capricious and uncertain, not only in the selection and management of her subjects, but also in her language and style. Her mannerisms amount to affectations; and too often her thoughts and images are crude, careless, and only half brought out. In her compositions she seems utterly to disregard correctness, combination, and elegance.

Mrs. Hemans, above all female writers, was distinguished for her rich tones — the voice at once sweet and full — that carried them to the heart, awakening the feelings as well as the imagination. Mrs. Browning speaks out in other accents — as of one oppressed with the weight of mortality, of some unutterable grief, and who longs for "the wings of a dove, to flee away and be at rest." Her day knows nothing of summer sunshine rejoicing in its flowers and singing-birds; it is like that of cheerless November with its pallid low-hung sky, its drizzly rains, and its yellow leaves eddying in the breeze. Her song, half inarticulate, is often nothing more than a long wild wail, like the "Oolaloo" at an Irish funeral — as in The Cry of the Children, the most extraordinary and strikingly original of all Mrs. Browning's productions; or than mere Aeolian warblings — as the seraphic choruses in the Drama of Exile. Gifted with a fine and peculiar genius, what Mrs. Browning might have achieved, or may yet achieve, by concentration of thought and rejection of unworthy materials, it is impossible to say; but most assuredly she has hitherto marred the effect of much she has written by a careless self-satisfaction. Instead of being a comet that "from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war," she might have been, and I trust is destined yet to be, a constellation to twinkle for ever in silver beauty amid the blue serene. The materials of poetry seem lying heaped in plenty around her; but she either will not exert it, or her skill in putting them together sadly lacks tutoring. This defect many will suppose should have been overcome by practice and experience. Sorry am I to say it has not been so. On the contrary, her faults, as I have lamented, have been degenerating into system. She has, year after year, been becoming more involved in style, more mystical in conception, and more transcendental in speculation. Instead of healthy strength we have morbid excitement, and what were originally mere peculiarities and mannerisms, appear to have grown into settled affectations.

The "importunate and heavy load" of the truth of the following stanzas from The Cry of the Children weighs on the heart like a nightmare, — on the imagination like a torture-scene by Spagnoletto.

Do ye hear the children weeping, oh 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 towards the west;

But the young, young children, oh my brothers!
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free....

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 droppeth down 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 are droning,
And sometimes we could pray,
"O ye wheels, (breaking out in a sad moaning,)
Stop — be silent for to-day!"

Ay, be silent! Let them hear each other breathing
For a moment, mouth to mouth;
Let them 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 and reveals,
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels!...

Now tell the poor young children, oh my brothers!
To look up to Him and pray,
So the Blessed One, who blesseth all the others,
May bless them another day.