Elizabeth Barrett Browning

October 8, 2006


One of England’s most famous poets during her lifetime
Admired by contemporaries for her moral and emotional ardor and her energetic engagement with the issues of her day
Better know than her husband, Robert Browning, at the time of her death
Interested in what it means to be a woman poet and the female response to social and political events
Received an unusual education
First volume of poetry was published when she was 13
Personal life was burdened by ill health and her tyrannically protective father, who forbid any of his 11 children to be married
Secretly eloped with Robert Browning in 1846 in Italy: her father never forgave her
Poetry is characterized by a fervent moral sensibility: uses poetry as a tool of social protest and reform
In later poems, she took up the cause of the Risorgimento, the movement to unify Italy as a nation-state
Works are full of tender and delicate, but also of strong and deep, thought

Aurora Leigh 1857

Verse novel
Poem depicts the growth of a woman poet and is the first work in English by a woman writer in which the heroine herself is the author
Portrait of the artist as a young woman committed to a socially inclusive realist art
Daring work both in its presentation of social issues concerning women and in its claims for Aurora’s poetic vocation
Immensely popular in its own day: had extravagant admirers and critics
Unlike Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Browning felt that the present age contained the materials for an epic poetry
Virginia Woolf said in regards to Aurora Leigh: it gives us…

“a sense of life in general, of people who are unmistakably Victorian, wrestling with the problems of their own time, all brightened, intensified, and compacted by the fire of poetry… Aurora Leigh, with her passionate interest in social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age.”

Barrett Browning on Aurora Leigh in beginning to write:

“My chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem… running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like ‘where angels fear to tread’; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive of it out plainly.”


Was this my father’s England? the great isle? / The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship / Of verdure, field from field, as man from man; / The skies themselves looked low and positive, / As almost you could touch them with a hand, / And dared to do it they were so far off / From God’s celestial crystals; all things blurred / And dull and vague. Did Shakespeare and his mates / Absorb the light here? -not a hill or stone / With heart to strike a radiant colour up / Or active outline on the indifferent air.

She had lived, we’ll say, / A harmless life, she called a virtuous life, / A quiet life, which was not life at all / (But that, she had not lived enough to know),

She had lived / A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage, / Accounting that to leap from perch to perch / Was act and joy enough for any bird. / Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live / In thickets, and eat berries!
I, alas, / A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage, / And she was there to meet me. Very kind. / Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.

There seemed more true life in my father’s grave / Than in all England. Since that threw me oof / Who fain would cleave (his latest will, they say, / Consigned me to his land), I only thought / Of lying quiet there where I was thrown / Like sea-weed on the rocks, and suffering her / To prick me to a pattern with her pin, / Fibre from fibre, delicate leaf from leaf, / And dry out from my drowned anatomy / The last sea-salt left in me.

By the way, / The works of women are symbolical. / We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, / Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir, / To put on when you’re weary- or a stool / To stumble over and vex you… ‘curse that stool!’ / Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean / And sleep, and dream of something we are not / But would be for your sake. Alas, alas! / This hurts most, this- that, after all, we are paid / The worth of our work, perhaps.

‘I perceive. / The headache is too noble for my sex. / You think the heartache would sound decenter, / Since that’s the woman’s special, proper ache, / And altogether tolerable, except / To a woman.’

‘Now,’ I said, ‘may God / Be witness ‘twixt us two!’ and with the word, / Meseemed I floated into a sudden light / Above his stature,- ‘am I proved too weak / To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear / Such leaners on my shoulder? poor to think, / Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought? / Incompetent to sing, as blackbirds can, / Yet competent to love, like him?’

‘What you love / is not a woman, Romney, but a cause: / You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir, / A wife to help your ends, -in her no end. / Your cause is noble, your ends excellent, / But I, being most unworthy of these and that, / Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.’

‘It takes a soul, / To move a body: it takes a high-souled man, / To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye: / It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s-breadth off / The dust of the actual. -Ah, your Fouriers failed, / Because not poets enough to understand / That life develops from within. -For me, / Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say, / Of work like this: perhaps a woman’s soul / Aspires, and not creates: yet we aspire, / And yet I’ll try out your perhapses, sir, / And if I fail… why, burn me up my straw / Like other false works- I’ll not ask for grace; / Your scorn is better, cousin Romney. I / Who love my art, would never wish it lower / To suit my stature. I may love my art. / You’ll grant that even a woman may love art, / Seeing that to waste true love on anything / Is womanly, past question.’

Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world / A little overgrown (I think there is), / Their sole work is to represent the age, / Their age, not Charlemagne’s, -this live, throbbing age, / That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires, / And spends more passion, more heroic heat, / Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, / Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles. / To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce, / Cry out for togas and the picturesque, / Is fatal, -foolish too. King Arthur’s self / Was commonplace to Lady Guenever; / And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat / As Fleet Street to our poets.
Never flinch, / But still, uncrupulously epic, catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, ,double-breasted Age: / That, when the next shall come, the men of that / May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say / ‘Behold, -behold the paps we all have sucked! / This bosom seems to beat still, or at least / It sets ours beating: this is living art, / Which thus presents and thus records true life.’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: