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Feminist Views of a Victorian Poet


ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: THE ORIGINS OF A NEW POETRY by Dorothy Mermin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

320 pp., $48 cloth, $15.95 paper

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by Margaret Forster, New York: Doubleday, 400 pp., illustrated, $19.95


edited by Margaret Forster, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,

330 pp., $29.95 cloth, $9.95 paper


introduction by Gardner B. Taplin, Chicago: Academy Chicago/,

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Cassandra Editions, 351 pp., $7.95 paper

THE first woman poet to establish herself in the major tradition and the first Victorian poet: Dorothy Mermin makes large claims for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but she is also aware of the problems that make Barrett Browning's poetry unappealing, even to readers who like other Victorian poets.

Born in 1806 - she was six years older than her husband, Robert Browning, and three years older than Tennyson - Elizabeth Barrett Browning was determined from childhood to become a great poet: a ``female Homer,'' as she hoped. Mermin points out that Christina Rossetti's medievalizing ballads, Arthur Hugh Clough's verse novel, Algernon Charles Swinburne's poems of the Italian Risorgimento, were all anticipated in her works.

During her own lifetime and for some decades to come, Barrett Browning's reputation reached heights it later seemed unlikely to regain. John Ruskin proclaimed her verse novel ``Aurora Leigh'' the greatest poem of the century. Swinburne, equally enraptured, declared: ``It is one of the longest poems in the world, and there is not a dead line in it.'' In America, Barrett Browning was, if anything, more widely esteemed, with admirers as distinguished as Emily Dickinson and Henry James.

But even at the height of Victorian enthusiasm, there were detractors like Edward FitzGerald, whose ill-considered remark in a letter to a friend - ``Mrs. Browning's death is rather a relief ... no more `Aurora Leighs,' thank God!'' (published 27 years later, when FitzGerald, too, was dead) triggered Robert Browning's white-hot verse riposte ending, ``Surely to spit there glorifies your face -/ Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.''

Her reputation declined sharply in this century - despite the enduring popularity of her ``Sonnets from the Portuguese'' and the approbation of so astute a critical mind as Virginia Woolf, who in 1931 (70 years after Barrett Browning's death) urged a reconsideration that was not to take place until the feminist revisions of the 1970s and '80s. The decline in Barrett Browning's standing can be traced to a variety of factors, from the Paterian-Wildean aestheticism that devalued Victorian moralism to the Modernism that shunned Victorian prolixity and shuddered at Victorian sentimentality. Irony, concentrated imagery, discontinuity, were in. Earnestness, ``poetic'' diction, and preachiness were out, leaving little in her poems to appeal to modern tastes.

Feminist circles attribute the Modernist elevation of the hard, lean, and tough to a ``masculinist'' reaction against the rising tide of feminism. Whether we choose to reevaluate our literary values or merely to try to look beyond them in order to understand those of another time and place, some kind of adjustment is necessary if we are to appreciate Barrett Browning's work.

Mermin concedes that many of the poems are embarrassing. But this embarrassment cannot always be explained away as easily as she might wish. The literal-mindedness that made even the best Victorian poets inferior to their Romantic precursors afflicted Barrett Browning to a greater degree. While Tennyson, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Matthew Arnold express a struggle for religious faith or poetic vision, Barrett Browning - as Mermin admits - seems to affirm her beliefs rather than achieve them.

Still, by locating these poems within the Victorian context, Mermin's sensitive and engaging study highlights what was new - even daring - about a woman acting as the subject rather than the object of love sonnets, or venturing, as Barrett Browning also did, into the masculine realm of political discourse.

In contrast to Mermin, who uses the poet's life only as background to her poems, Margaret Forster's biography pays relatively slight attention to the poetry. This is a defensible approach, because Barrett Browning's greatest legacy may well have been to offer a role model. By her life and work, she triumphantly proved that a woman could be a serious poet (as distinguished from a versifying ``lady'' amateur) without sacrificing love, marriage, and motherhood. Indeed, the Brownings' courtship attained the status of a modern legend.

Forster, a London-based novelist and biographer (her credits include ``Georgy Girl'' and ``William Makepeace Thackeray''), draws on newly available letters and diaries to revise the legend without tarnishing it. The Elizabeth Barrett who emerges here is no passive victim of paternal tyranny, but a brilliant, strong-minded young woman who at least partly connives at her own ``imprisonment'' to escape from tedious social obligations and immerse herself in her studies.

Forster also differs from Freudian scholars (like Robert Browning's biographer Betty Miller) in depicting the Barrett-Browning marriage as a resounding success. She does not minimalize Elizabeth's foibles (a penchant for s'eances, a foolish idolatry of Napoleon III, a propensity for spoiling her son), and she even exposes her hypocrisy in championing the cause of unwed mothers in ``Aurora Leigh,'' while doing little to help her own loyal servant who became pregnant.

This life of Barrett Browning succeeds in transforming the pallid Victorian versifier into a resilient, touching, and believable human being.

Mermin and Forster take different approaches. They even disagree as to some of the facts. But both books should go a long way toward winning at least a second reading for Barrett Browning's work. ``Aurora Leigh,'' if not the great poem Swinburne and Ruskin believed it to be, is a surprisingly engrossing verse novel. Insight, passion, and trenchant observation can be found in poems like ``A Curse for a Nation,'' ``Bianca among the Nightingales,'' and ``A Musical Instrument.''

No amount of feminist revisionism is likely to advance Elizabeth Barrett Browning into the front rank of Victorian poets or of women poets. But revisions such as these enable us to see Barrett Browning as a woman of considerable gifts engaged in - if not entirely succeeding at - a large-scale venture in poetry.

Sonnet XIII From `Sonnets from the Portuguese'

And wilt thou have me fashion into speech

The love I bear thee, finding words enough,

And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough

Between our faces, to cast light on each? -

I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach

My hand to hold my spirit so far off

From myself ... me ... that I should bring thee proof

In words, of love hid in me out of reach.

Nay, let the silence of my womanhood

Commend my woman-love to thy belief, -

Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,

And rend the garment of my life, in brief,

By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,

Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Excerpt From `Bianca Among the Nightingales'

The cypress stood up like a church

That night we felt our love would hold,

And saintly moonlight seemed to search

And wash the whole world clean as gold;

The olives crystallized the vales'

Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:

The fireflies and the nightingales

Throbbed each to either, flame and song.

The nightingales, the nightingales.

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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