giovedì 15 luglio 2010

Edgy Elizabeth Barrett Browning

From The Times Literary Supplement

Energy, restraint and unresolved tensions in the poet's work and lifeJoseph Phelan After reading a “laudatory article on Miss Barrett” in Blackwood’s Magazine the young Arthur Hugh Clough decided to buy a copy of her recently published Poems (1844), but soon came to regret this impulsive decision to “patronize poetical talent”, as he confessed in a letter to his friend and poetic collaborator Thomas Burbidge: “I have read about half of Miss Barrett, and am rather disappointed with one long poem which I expected to find good, viz. the Vision of Poets: it is all in support of the Painfulness and Martyrdom Poet-Theory, the which I don’t agree to”. Clough was no doubt thinking of the section of the poem in which “Miss Barrett” runs through a list of the “poets true” who have worn the “rugged cilix” of self-mortification, and “died for Beauty, as martyrs do / For truth”. The volume as a whole suggests a desire on the poet’s part to find a place for herself on this list; in the preface she calls poetry “as serious a thing to me as life itself”, and laments that her own 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”.

The editors of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – the first modern scholarly edition of her poetry – are, by contrast, much more upbeat about her verse, describing it as “edgy”, “visionary”, and “groundbreaking”. Even poems which, on first reading, might seem like dreary exercises in sentimentality or piety are found to have hidden depths of irony or subversiveness. “Bertha in the Lane”, for instance, is a narrative of sisterly self-sacrifice, which concludes with one of the memorably bad lines of which Elizabeth was occasionally guilty: “I aspire while I expire”. Contemporary reviewers read it straightforwardly as an exercise in pathos – “the purest picture of a broken heart that ever drew tears from the eyes of woman or of man” – but modern critics (so the headnote to the poem informs us) take it for granted that the poem is in some sense ironic, and are divided merely on the “degree of irony” implied by the speaker’s confession.

This clash of sensibilities, between nineteenth-century readers, who were keen to see in Elizabeth’s poetry stereotypically feminine qualities of sentiment and pathos, and modern critics determined to construct an “iconoclastic” and radical poet, is played out repeatedly in the notes to the poems, and highlights some of the unresolved tensions in Elizabeth’s work. She is, on the one hand, the poet of the politically explosive “Curse for a Nation” and the ambitious and deliberately provocative Aurora Leigh, rushing “into drawing rooms and the like” with an unsettling message of social and sexual inequality for her contemporaries. She is also, though, the poet of “painfulness and martyrdom” who disappointed Clough, a pious, ascetic, and often rather unattractively dogmatic writer, who seems, at various points in her life, to have found a grim satisfaction in abasing herself before a succession of real and imaginary father figures.

“I count it strange, and hard to understand”, says the narrator of Aurora Leigh, herself an aspiring poet, “That nearly all young poets should write old.” She cites in evidence Pope, a “sexagenarian” at sixteen, and Byron, “academical” in his style while still “beardless”. These examples are not chosen at random; Elizabeth’s early poetry, much of which is published here for the first time, bears unmistakable traces not just of her voracious reading in the work of Pope and his successors, but also of her infatuation with Byron. Many of her early compositions are songs in imitation of Byron (and indeed of Thomas Moore), and she adopted Byron’s passionate commitment to the liberation of Italy before ever visiting the country which became her adopted home after her marriage. She even fantasized about dressing as a boy and running away to become Byron’s page, a daydream which would later find poetic expression in her faux-medieval (and proto-Freudian) “Romaunt of the Page”.

The scope and energy of much of this early work are well represented by the fragment of an Essay on Woman written when she was just sixteen, and inspired by her reading of Mary Wollstonecraft:

Imperious Man! Is this alone thy pride
T’enslave the heart that lingers at thy side?
Smother each flash of intellectual fire,
And bid Ambitions noblest throb expire?
Pinion the wing, that yearns for glory’s light,
Then boast the strength of thy superior flight?

It is, however, also possible to detect in these early and incomplete poems signs of the emotional conflict which led this child prodigy, indulged and supported by her father, to rein in her youthful rebelliousness and ambition, and attempt, at severe psychological cost to herself, to become one of the “lovely, abject things” she criticizes in this poem. A poem of 1827 on the development of genius seems to have led to a falling-out with her father, who criticized the subject as “beyond [her] grasp”, and advised her to “be content with what you can reach”. She clearly took the lesson to heart; the fragment of the poem in question printed here, entitled “The Poet’s Enchiridion”, includes a resonant (if slightly disturbing) metaphor of benign imprisonment, which seems to anticipate and almost to invite Elizabeth’s subsequent physical and emotional decline: “as, against their wills / The little valley prisons many rills / In her green bondage, so my narrow song / Shall turn into one course the gushings strong / Of mind and feeling”.

This “bondage” forces her poetry into stranger and more idiosyncratic shapes, distorted by competing and often unacknowledged pressures. There is unquestionably a movement towards more traditionally “feminine” subjects and styles: graceful and slight poems on flowers, and sentimental but black-edged reflections on childhood. Fretful and suffering mothers seem to have been a popular subject for early Victorian poets – Sara Coleridge has a number of poems in this vein – but Elizabeth wins the prize for the most maudlin contribution to the genre with “The Mourning Mother (of the Dead Blind)”. Her poetry also begins to manifest a severely ascetic and rather truculent brand of Christianity. “A Sabbath Morning at Sea” breaks off from describing the beauties of the natural world with a reminder that “sunless graves” and a “sea commixed with fire” await the poet in the life to come, while “The Dead Pan” offers a weirdly triumphalist account of the silencing of the pagan oracles. Even her cousin John Kenyon, a staunch friend and supporter, complained to her that she “would bring in religion upon all possible opportunities”; and a glance at the closing stanzas of many of the poems written during this period is sufficient to register the capitalized pronouns (“HE”, “ONE”) which herald the predictable moment of Christian resignation or consolation.

This reflex of guilt for the mildest sensual indulgence is especially apparent in those poems in which she articulates her desire for some kind of escape from the increasingly severe physical and psychological restrictions of her life. The editors rightly draw attention to the significance of a much- revised poem called variously “The Island” and “An Island”, a bucolic fantasy clearly inspired by Elizabeth’s love of seventeenth-century poetry, and especially of Marvell, as this delicate description of the flowers indicates: “The rays of their unnumbered hues / Being all refracted by the dews”. Elizabeth’s imagination twined round this fantasy of a tropical or at least exotic island, a “lost bower” of innocence and ease from which she had been exiled, and her feelings about it seem to have been both strong and confused. It is, perhaps, a little too easy, given her family’s involvement with the plantations in colonial Jamaica, to connect this fantasy with the role of Jamaica in her imaginative life; but it is striking to see how many of the poems of discontent and longing (such as “Doves”) invoke the idea of a lost landscape of luxuriant beauty. Elizabeth never visited Cinnamon Hill, her family’s grand residence, but she must have heard stories from her father and brothers about Jamaica, the “loveliest Isle”, which was both the source of her family’s wealth, and the reason for their eventual and drastic loss of fortune.

“An Island” was first published in 1837, but excluded from the 1844 Poems; by the time it reappeared, in 1850, “Miss Barrett” had become Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wife of the poet Robert Browning and mother to Pen. The romantic story of the secret courtship and clandestine marriage of the two poets, as chronicled in their correspondence and represented on stage and film, has, the editors suggest, had a distorting effect on the general perception of Elizabeth’s career, elevating the Sonnets from the Portuguese to a position of undue prominence in the history of her work, and pushing other elements, especially the political poetry of her last decade, into the background. There is some truth in this argument, not least because it is clear that many of the characteristic features of her later poetry are already beginning to emerge by 1844. She had already begun to think of much of her earlier poetry as “weak and inferior”, and to manifest a desire to address broader social and political subjects in her verse. One of the clearest signs of this is her “Locksley Hall”-inspired narrative poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, an attempt to reflect on the topical subjects of social inequality and class division. A great deal has been written in recent years on Elizabeth’s use of the ballad, usually in an attempt to show that she is doing something innovative with a form popular with many early nineteenth-century “poetesses”. There is, however, an inescapable air of pastiche about many of her ballads and “Romaunts”, with their pseudo-medieval vocabulary (“ee”, “countree”) and their tendency towards schematic and simplified representations of social and psychological problems. This is very clear in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, which attempts, on the one hand, to incorporate the real world of railways and industrialization into its narrative, but reduces the complex reality of this world to the contrast between an impecunious poet and an aristocratic lady. Elizabeth’s “social problem” poems never entirely escape this tendency towards abstraction and simplification; it is still present in the Lady Waldemars and Marian Erles of Aurora Leigh.

The readiness to see marriage and, above all, motherhood, as turning points in Elizabeth’s life cannot, however, be blamed entirely on the patriarchal bias of the critical tradition; it was a reading of her own career which Elizabeth promoted and encouraged. For all of their reversals and subversions of the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, the Sonnets from the Portuguese tell a story of ballad-like simplicity, with Robert rescuing Elizabeth and leading her back towards light and life: “I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange / My near sweet view of heaven, for earth with thee!”. Moreover, as critics have often pointed out, her later poetry makes provocative and deliberately controversial use of a range of images drawn from the roles of wife and (especially) mother to articulate her experience; Aurora Leigh, in an image which alarmed some reviewers, urges the poet to capture “\[upon\] the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age”. The prototypical female narrative of engagement, marriage and motherhood becomes the paradigm of the artist’s journey from self-absorption and solipsism to constructive engagement with humanity.

The poetry of her married life is, for this reason, primarily a poetry of intervention, directed not inwards at her own life and experience but outwards to the great causes of social renovation and national renewal. Many recent critics have attempted to present Aurora Leigh – absurdly described by John Ruskin as “the greatest poem the century has produced in any language” – as the summit of her achievement; but it is, in some respects, a symptom of her physical and emotional separation from England. Elizabeth is still fighting the battles of the 1840s a decade later, and doing so in the anachronistically strident language of Thomas Carlyle. Her “real” life after her marriage was not in England, but, for the majority of the time, in Italy; it was the Italian struggle for national liberation that engrossed her attention, and produced her most directly political poetry, during this period. It also permitted her to indulge her tendency towards hero worship, already exercised in earlier periods of her life on Byron, Wordsworth and (more troublingly) her own father; she was, despite all evidence to the contrary, determined to promote Napoleon III to a deeply hostile British public as the heroic and visionary liberator of Italy.

The Brownings were in Paris in 1851 when Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the first Napoleon and pretender to the throne of a non-existent “Empire”, seized power in a coup d’état. Elizabeth’s letters from this period, available in the recently published Volume Seventeen of The Brownings’ Correspondence, highlight the extent of what John Kenyon (again) called her “immoral sympathy with power”:

"The president rode under our windows on the second of December through a shout extending from the Carrousel to the Arc de l’étoile. The troops poured in, as we stood & looked. No sight could be grander, and I would not have missed it . . . not for the Alps, I say!"

The violent repression of resistance to the coup is dismissed by Elizabeth as the clearing away of “a little popular scum”, and she repeats, to several correspondents, her conviction that Louis Napoleon’s actions have “the sympathy of the whole population”, especially the “tradespeople”, who are all too willing to see him as “le vrai neveu de son oncle”. It is this conviction that underlies her almost mystical exaltation of Louis Napoleon, now Emperor of France, in Poems Before Congress (1860). He has been translated “to the sphere of domination / By democratic passion!”, the universal and free choice of the French people; and he has invaded Italy “unselfishly”, in order to “deliver” the country from Austrian oppression. The fact that he stopped well short of this – and accepted the annexation of Nice and Savoy as the price for his withdrawal – did nothing to diminish the force of Elizabeth’s “democratic passion”. She continued to believe in the Emperor’s good intentions up to the moment of her death, risking what she called “domestic émeutes” on the question with the altogether more sceptical Robert.

There is an attempt by the Pickering and Chatto editors, in the headnote to this poem, to suggest that Robert Browning’s critics have mischievously exaggerated the differences between the two poets on this topic, with the aim of making Elizabeth’s views look unbalanced and indefensible. Whatever the rights and wrongs in this case – and the overwhelming majority of the evidence suggests that Robert thought of Louis Napoleon as a fantasist, charlatan and demagogue – many critics of Robert’s work have treated Elizabeth’s poetry with some disdain. The editors’ vigilant scrutiny of these judgements is, for this reason, fully justified, as is their obvious delight in reclaiming for Elizabeth a number of poems wrongly attributed to Robert over the years, including some, such as “Aeschylus’ Monodrama”, on which his critics and editors have heaped praise.

Part of the reason for these misattributions was Robert’s careful transcription of some of Elizabeth’s poems in his capacity as editor of her work following her death in 1861. He was responsible for overseeing the publication of Last Poems (1862); the final opportunity that Elizabeth herself had to sift and present her own work as she wanted it to appear was in 1856, when she issued the fourth edition of her Poems. The decision to use 1856 as copy text for Volumes One and Two of the Works is prompted by the reasonable desire to respect Elizabeth’s wishes concerning the presentation of her work, but it does produce some slightly odd results; Volume Four, which includes both early poems excluded from 1856 and later publications (such as Poems Before Congress), has a distinctly miscellaneous look. Readers wanting to reconstruct Elizabeth’s career chronologically will have to do a lot of switching between these substantial volumes. The layout of the text itself is also a little puzzling, with the poems in smaller type than the headnotes that introduce them; this is particularly unfortunate in the case of the more uninviting specimens (The Seraphim springs to mind). These are, though, relatively minor matters when placed against the editors’ substantial achievement in restoring Elizabeth’s work to view, and in some cases enabling it to be seen for the very first time; Volume Five includes a wealth of recently discovered and previously unpublished material. With the appearance of this edition, the study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry enters a new phase; her work no longer needs to be rescued or rediscovered, and can be paid the compliment of genuine critical scrutiny.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Edited by Sandra Donaldson et al
Five volumes, 2,976pp. Pickering and Chatto. £450 (US $795).
978 1 85196 900 5

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Volume Seventeen, February 1851–January 1852, Letters 2,901–3,000
Edited by Philip Kelly et al
432pp. Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press. $110.
978 0 911459 34 0

Joseph Phelan is a Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at De Montfort University and Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature. He is co- editor with John Woolford and Daniel Karlin of Browning: Selected poems, published earlier this year, and is writing a book on metrical experiment in nineteenth-century poetry.

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