1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

R. H. Horne, "Miss E. B. Barrett and Mrs. Norton" New Spirit of the Age (1844; 2d edition) 2:131-40.



It is anything but handsome towards those who were criticised, or fair towards the adventurous critic, to regard, as some have done, the article on Modern English Poetesses, which appeared a few years ago in the Quarterly Review, as a tribute merely of admiration. It was a tribute of justice; and hardly that, because nine ladies were reviewed, of very different kind and degree of merit, all in the same article. Eight were allowed to wear their laurels; the ninth fell a victim. It may safely be declared that the poetical genius, the impassioned fervour, the knowledge of genuine nature and of society of books, of languages, of all that is implied by the term of accomplishment, and "though last, not least," the highly cultivated talent in the poetic art, displayed by several of these poetesses, are such as to entitle them to a higher position than many of the "received" poets of past centuries.

The list we have named comprises, Mrs. Norton; Miss E. B. Barrett; Maria del Occidente; Lady Northampton (author of "Irene"); Caroline Southey; Miss Lowe; the Author of "IX Poems;" Sara Coleridge; and one other, a lady of rank, whom it was a pity to introduce. The reviewer proposed to make a wreath of them after the manner of Meleager, and appropriately commenced with Mrs. Norton as "the Rose, or, if she like it, Love-lies-a-bleeding;" and Miss Barrett as "Greek Valerian, or Ladder to Heaven, or, if she pleases, Wild Angelica." The former lady is well known, personally, to a large and admiring circle, and is also extensively known to the reading public by her works. The latter lady, or "fair shade" — whichever she may be — is not known personally, to anybody, we had almost said; but her poetry is known to a highly intellectual class, and she "lives" in constant correspondence with many of the most eminent persons of the time. When, however, we consider the many strange and ingenious conjectures that are made in after years, concerning authors who appeared but little among their contemporaries, or of whose biography little is actually known, we should not be in the least surprised, could we lift up our ear out of our grave a century hence, to hear some learned Thebans expressing shrewd doubts as to whether such an individual as Miss E. B. Barrett had ever really existed. Letters and notes, and exquisite English lyrics, and perhaps a few elegant Latin verses, and spirited translations from Aeschylus, might all be discovered under that name; but this would not prove that such a lady had ever dwelt among us. Certain admirable and erudite prose articles on the Greek Christian Poets, might likewise be ascertained by the exhumation of sundry private letters and documents, touching periodical literature, to have been from the hand of that same "Valerian;" but neither the poetry, nor the prose, nor the delightfully gossipping notes to fair friends, nor the frank correspondence with scholars, such as Lady Jane Grey might have written to Roger Ascham — no, not even if the great-grandson of some learned Jewish doctor could show a note in Hebrew (quite a likely thing really to be extant) with the same signature, darkly translated by four letters, — nay, though he should display as a relic treasured in his family, the very pen, with its oblique Hebraic nib, that wrote it — not any one, nor all of those things could be sufficient to demonstrate the fact, that such a lady had really adorned the present century.

In such chiaroscuro, therefore, as circumstances permit, we will endeavour to offer sufficient grounds for our readers' belief, to the end that posterity may at least have the best authorities and precedents we can furnish. Confined entirely to her own apartment, and almost hermetically sealed, in consequence of some extremely delicate state of health, the poetess of whom we write is scarcely seen by any but her own family. But though thus separated from the world, and all its experiences, Miss Barrett has yet found means by extraordinary inherent energies to develope her inward nature; to give vent to the soul in a successful struggle with its destiny while on earth; and to attain and master more knowledge and accomplishments than are usually within the power of those of either sex who possess every adventitious opportunity, as well as health and industry. Five years of this imprisonment she has now endured, not with vain repinings, though deeply conscious of the loss of external nature's beauty; but with resignation, with patience, with cheerfulness, and generous sympathies towards the world without; — with indefatigable "work" by thought, by book, by the pen, and with devout faith, and adoration, and a high and hopeful waiting for the time when this mortal frame "putteth on immortality."

The period when a strong prejudice existed against learned ladies and "blues" has gone by, some time since; yet in case any elderly objections may still exist on this score, or that some even of the most liberal-minded readers may entertain a degree of doubt as to whether a certain austere exclusiveness and ungenial pedantry might infuse a slight tinge into the character of ladies possessing Miss Barrett's attainments, a few words may be added to prevent erroneous impressions on this score. Probably no living individual has a more extensive and diffuse acquaintance, with literature — that of the present day inclusive — than Miss Barrett. Although she has read Plato, in the original, from beginning to end, and the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Malachi (nor suffered her course to be stopped by the Chaldean), yet there is probably not a single good romance of the most romantic kind in whose marvellous and impossible scenes she has not delighted, over the fortunes of whose immaculate or incredible heroes and heroines she has not wept; nor a clever novel or fanciful sketch of our own day, over the brightest pages of which she has not smiled inwardly, or laughed outright, just as their authors themselves would have desired. All of this, our readers may be assured that we believe to be as strictly authentic as the very existence of the lady in question, although, as we have already confessed, we have no absolute knowledge of this fact. But lest the reader should exclaim, "Then, after all, there really may be no such person!" we should bear witness to having been shown a letter of Miss Mitford's to a friend, from which it was plainly to be inferred that she had actually seen and conversed with her. The date has unfortunately escaped us.

We cannot admit that any picture, engraving, or other portrait of Mrs. Norton with which the public has been favoured does full justice to the original; nevertheless they may be considered as likenesses, to a certain extent, and by reason of these, and her popular position as an authoress, any introductory remarks on the present occasion would be needless.

There are few poems which would be more acceptable to the lovers of poetry that embodies sweet domestic tenderness, and rural description, than Mrs. Norton's "Dream," from which we make the following extract;—

Faint and sweet
Thy light falls round the peasant's homeward feet,
Who, slow returning from his task of toil,
Sees the low sunset gild the cultured soil,
And, tho' such radiance round him bright]c glows,
Marks the small spark his cottage window throws.
Still as his heart forestals his weary pace,
Fondly he dreams of each familiar face,
Recalls the treasures of his narrow life,
His rosy children and his sunburnt wife,
To whom his coming is the chief event
Of simple days in cheerful labour spent.

The above is characteristic of a style in which Mrs. Norton excels, and it is a popular error to regard her solely as the poetess of impassioned personalities, great as she undoubtedly has shown herself in such delineations. It must, however, be admitted that her chief strength is in the latter. There has seldom been more painful heart-language conveyed by a few lines than,—

By the sigh, whose different taste
Hath no echo of thine own;
By the hands cold clasp, which still
Held as not of its free will,
Shrinks, as it for freedom yearn'd;—

* * * *

When thy tongue (ah! woe is me!)
Whispers love-vows tenderly,
Mine is shaping, all unheard,
Fragments of some withering word,
Which, by its complete farewell,
Shall divide us like a spell!

The next extract is from Miss Barrett's Seraphim, where Ador, a seraph, exhorts Zerah not to linger nor look through the closed gate of heaven, after the Voice had said "Go!"

Thou — wherefore dust thou wait?
Oh! gaze not backward, brother mine;
The deep love in thy mystic eyne
Deepening inward, till is made
A copy of the earth-love shade—
Oh! gaze not through the gate!
God filleth heaven with God's own solitude
Till all its pavements glow!
His Godhead being no more subdued
By itself, to glories low
Which seraph, can sustain,
What if thou in gazing so,
Should behold but only one
Attribute, the veil undone—
And that the one to which we press
Nearest, for its gentleness—
Ay! His love!
How the deep ecstatic pain
Thy being's strength would capture!
Without a language for the rapture,
Without a music strong to come,
And set th' adoring free;
For ever, ever, wouldst thou be
Amid the general chorus dumb,—
God-stricken, in seraphic agony!
Or, brother, what if on thine eyes
In vision bare should rise
The LIFE-FOUNT whence his hand did gather
With solitary force
Our immortalities!—
Straightway how thine own would wither,
Falter like a human breath,—
And shrink into again! like death,
By gazing on its SOURCE!

We cannot do better, we think, than attempt to display the different characteristics of the genius of the two highly-gifted women who form the subject of the present paper, by placing them in such harmonious juxtaposition as may be most advantageous to both, and convey the clearest synthetical impression to the reader.

The prominent characteristics of these two poetesses may be designated as the struggles of woman towards happiness, and the struggles of a soul towards heaven. The one is oppressed with a sense of injustice, and feels the need of human love; the other is troubled with a sense of mortality, and aspires to identify herself with etherial existences. The one has a certain tinge of morbid despondency taking the tone of complaint and the amplification of private griefs; the other too often displays an energetic morbidity on the subject of death, together with a certain predilection for "terrors." The imagination of Mrs. Norton is chiefly occupied with domestic feelings and images, and breathes melodious plaints or indignations over the desecrations of her sex's loveliness; that of Miss Barrett often wanders amidst the supernatural darkness of Calvary sometimes with anguish and tears of blood, sometimes like one who echoes the songs of triumphal quires. Both possess not only great mental energies, but that description of strength which springs from a fine nature, and manifests itself in productions which evidently originated in genuine impulses of feeling. The subjects they both choose appear spontaneous, and not resulting from study or imitation, though cast into careful moulds of art. The one records and laments, the actual; the other creates and exults, in the ideal. Both are excellent artists: the one in dealing with subjects of domestic interest; the other in designs from sacred subjects, poems of religious tendency, or of the supernatural world. Mrs. Norton is beautifully clear and intelligible in her narrative and course of thought and feeling; Miss Barrett has great inventiveness, but not an equal power in construction. The one is all womanhood; the other all wings. Mrs. Norton is strong in actual experiences, and her sympathies are carried beyond them, even into the hard and painful scenes of juvenile labours, as evidenced in her Voice from the Factories, first published in 1836. Miss Barrett is rich in the memory of early experiences, but more rich in imaginations and etherial aspirations, and would shrink from the contemplation of unrefined realities. The one writes from the dictates of a human heart in all the eloquence of beauty and individuality; the other like an inspired priestess — not without a most truthful heart, but a heart that is devoted to religion, and whose individuality is cast upward in the divine afflatus, and dissolved and carried off in the recipient breath of angelic ministrants.

Some of Mrs. Norton's songs for music are very lovely, and other of her lyrics have the qualities of sweetness and pathos to a touching and thrilling degree. She has contributed many prose tales full of colour and expression to several of the Annuals; but these, together with her musical talents and editorial labours, are much too popularly known and admired to render any further remarks that we could offer upon them at all requisite.