Browning, Elizabeth Barrett: General Commentary
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING: GENERAL COMMENTARY
KAY MOSER (ESSAY DATE 1985)
SOURCE: Moser, Kay. "The Victorian Critics' Dilemma: What to Do With a Talented Poetess?" Victorians Institute Journal 13 (1985): 59-66.
In the following essay, Moser surveys the challenges Browning faced in being accepted as a woman and poet in the Victorian era.
And whosoever writes good poetry,1
Looks just to art.
He will not suffer the best critic known
To step into his sunshine of free thought
And self-absorbed conception and exact
An inch-long swerving of the Holy lines.
These lines from Aurora Leigh express Elizabeth Barrett's determination to remain true to a personal vision of her poetic art regardless of the critical response. Yet no author, least of all a poet, could afford to alienate the critics totally, for critics were the shapers of the Victorian audience; they were the gateway to that audience. A poetess was particularly dependent on good reviews, for even a single bad review could damn her work to an undeserved obscurity.
The arrival of Elizabeth Barrett on the poetic scene created special problems, for critics of this age were convinced that full poetic power simply could not exist in a woman. Thomas De Quincey had expressed the attitude of the age when he wrote: "'Woman, sister, there are some things which you do not execute as well as your brother, man; no, nor ever will. Pardon me, if I doubt whether you will ever produce a great poet from your choirs, or a Mozart, or a Phidias, or a Michael Angelo, or a great scholar. If you can create yourselves into any of these great creators, why have you not?'"2 DeQuincey's charge raised major questions for Victorian critics: could womankind produce a great poet, and had this creation appeared in Elizabeth Barrett? However, in spite of the natural inclination of critics to dispute, all admitted that she was the greatest woman poet who had ever lived, "our single Shakespearean woman."3 But Elizabeth Barrett refused to be judged by the lower standards habitually applied to women poets. In Aurora Leigh she makes her dislike of gender-based criticism quite clear as she insists that women4
… never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women when they judge a book
Not as men's work, but as mere woman's work,
Expressing the comparative respect
Which means the absolute scorn. "Oh, excellent!
What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!
What delicate discernment—almost thought!
The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women, competent to—spell."
Elizabeth Barrett's work was obviously too good and too provocative to be dismissed as merely pretty woman's verse. Thus, the dilemma of the Victorian critics emerged, what is one to do with a talented female poet who refused to be judged as a woman in an age which so clearly relegated women and their creative work to a lesser position on the aesthetic scale of value?
A review of Victorian criticism reveals divergent opinions on this issue. The few times when Elizabeth Barrett is judged by the same standards as a male counterpart, she is often considered the equal of such poets as Wordsworth and Tennyson.5 However, when her work is blamed, that criticism often takes the form of two accusations, one of which is definitely gender-based. She is frequently denounced for being too masculine because of her masculine subjects. Also she is charged with choosing topics, specifically contemporary social and political topics, that are inappropriate for poetry.
It is difficult for the modern mind to place itself in a Victorian perspective and imagine itself damning a woman poet for "manliness." In fact, it is nonsensical to attempt to evaluate a woman's work in terms of her male peers and at the same time demand that she be distinctly feminine. And yet, this is the contradictory standard, often unconscious of its bias, that was applied to Elizabeth Barrett. Readers were told that "she is all that the highest feminine intellect can attain to. Thoughtful, philosophic, vigorous and tender, with a passion and an earnestness that carry her right on to her object and sustain her throughout."6 However, in the same paragraph she is accused of "the effort to stand, not on a pedestal beside man, but actually to occupy his place" and in so doing commits what the critic judges to be grave errors. He writes, "She is occasionally coarse in expression and unfeminine in thought; and utters what, if they be even truths, are so conveyed that we would hesitate to present them to the eye of the readers of her own sex." And which of Elizabeth Barrett's poems is being described as "almost a closed volume for her own sex"?7 It is Aurora Leigh, and the "unfeminine thoughts" include the stories of two women: one, a poetess who commits the unpardonable sin of preferring a profession to marriage, and the second, a woman who is drugged, raped and bears an illegitimate child. The critic warns Elizabeth Barrett and her sex that: "Woman must be ever true to her womanly instincts if she would be the meet helper as well as companion of man."8
Aurora Leigh incited still another critic to attempt defining woman's role in the creation of poetry, and his comments are noticeably at odds with Elizabeth Barrett's performance, a performance he claims transgresses "the bounds of delicate feeling" in its "endeavour to show masculine vigour."9 He admits that women have "the most fundamental qualities required for poetic composition" particularly "the realizing imagination … which causes us to pity and to love.…"10 Where women go wrong, he insists, is invading the intellectual realm rather than limiting themselves to the emotional sphere where their talents lie. And further, women poets, and Elizabeth Barrett in particular, have gone wrong "by attempting descriptions of those feelings and passions which their sex is supposed neither to possess or even be acquainted with."11
What specifically did Victorian critics deem to be "coarse and indelicate" lines, lines that were too "masculine" to have come from a woman? The critics' favorite choice for indicating the "indelicacy" and "masculine vigor" in Elizabeth Barrett's verse comes again from Aurora Leigh :
But still, unscrupulously 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 have all sucked!"
Such a passage would surely escape critical censorship today at least for "indelicacy", but in an age that could not even bring itself to use the word "leg" in polite conversation, such writing was considered shockingly explicit. As one critic writes, "Lines such as these doth ill become a lady to have written, and only excite feelings of disgust when they are read."13
The disapproval and even anger of the critics flared when Elizabeth Barrett published Poems Before Congress in 1860. This time she was accused of being unfeminine not because of her indelicate expressions but because she had written on a political topic. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine declared, "We are strongly of opinion that, for the peace and welfare of society, it is a good and wholesome rule that women should not interfere with politics."14 Begging to be defended from "a domestic female partisan," the writer outlines the accepted Victorian view of woman's sphere. Women may write verse as long as "they warble like larks in the firmament … or coo like pigeons in spring" or they may write of the finer arts of culinary affairs. When women confine their writing to these spheres, the critics
listen, read, comment, perpend, and approve without the slightest feeling that they have in any degree overstepped the pale of propriety. And when we see them engaged in deeds of true charity—in visiting the sick, relieving the distressed, providing food for the hungry and clothing for the naked, or praying at the lonely deathbed,—we acknowledge that it is no vain figure of poetry, no fanciful association of thought, that likens women to angels!15
But from politics women must be banned because "[to] reason they will not listen; to argument they are utterly impervious."16 Specifically, Poems Before Congress was criticized for being bad poetry, blind politics, and grossly unfair to England and English feeling. And once again Elizabeth Barrett was accused to being "masculine," this time for writing politically.
Thus, some critics thought political issues too "masculine" a subject for a woman poet. Still others considered all contemporary social and political issues inappropriate for any poet—man or woman. And this critical stance Elizabeth Barrett repeatedly violated, most notably in Casa Guidi Windows, Aurora Leigh and Poems Before Congress. In fact, in Aurora Leigh, she writes emphatically that the chief aim of a poet should be to illustrate the age in which s/he lives. She states:
But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things, as intimately deep,
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
Nay, if there's room for poets in this world17
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.
Claiming the contemporary as a fit subject for her poetry put Elizabeth Barrett into direct conflict with a number of her major critics. In its review of Aurora Leigh, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine chastized her, explaining that her philosophy "would lead to a total sacrifice of the ideal." They continue
It is not the province of the poet to depict things as they are, but so to refine and purify as to purge out the grosser matter, and this he cannot do if he attempts to give a faithful picture of his own times. For in order to be faithful, he must necessarily include much which is abhorrent to art, and revolting to the taste.…All poetical characters, all poetical situations must be idealised. Whilst dealing with a remote subject the poet can easily effect this, but not so when he brings forward characters of his own age.18
The London Quarterly Review echoed the same criticism four years later in 1861 when reviewing the newly released Poems Before Congress. They described the poems as "a perfect shriek"19 when she expresses her opinions about Italian politics. It should be noted that in Poems Before Congress, Elizabeth Barrett infuriated many critics with the stance she took in favor of Louis Napoleon, and much of the insistence that she stay away from political topics probably resulted from this reaction.
However, not all critics agreed that political and social issues were inappropriate poetic topics. The Chambers Edinburgh Journal insisted "that the age we live in is not destitute of themes for the poet when the inspiration of genius comes to mould the modern event into the poetic thought."20 After reminding its readers that women have been able to write only "poetry of the affections" and that "In the higher walks of poetry—such as the dramatic—few women have won a reputation,"21 the critic applauds Elizabeth Barrett for her Casa Guidi Windows.
Apart from the fine poetic fire which burns in many parts of the Casa Guidi Windows, the views which it gives us of Italian politics are clear and interesting. We do not usually look to poems for such things, least of all do we expect to find them in poetry written by a lady, but as we have said, Mrs. Browning's sympathies are not such as are confined within the sphere of feminine likings and dislikings. She has a great deal of masculine energy, and her writings are often pervaded by a spirit of political zeal not common in those even of the other sex.22
In the same complimentary vein, Fraser's Magazine applauds Casa Guidi Windows for being "a most wise and beautiful and noble poem,—a poem with a purpose and that purpose carried out in speech, as few are in these days of purposeless song twittering."23
Some critics accepted modern themes in poetry but felt the need to justify their stance. Speaking of Casa Guidi Windows, the Athenaeum explains that it is acceptable for Elizabeth Barrett to write of contemporary themes because "the familiarities of the present have not hid from her the spiritual truth which underlies them."24 Furthermore, the application of a high intelligence to contemporary events transforms them into appropriate poetic subjects.
In dealing with these "modern instances," Mrs. Browning has invested them with a tone of ideal grandeur which gives them in point of poetic effect all the remoteness of antiquity. We could cite no better example of the truth that the distance between the common and the ideal is not that between the past and the present, but that between objects as perceived by the senses and objects as interpreted by the mind.25
The blame that fell upon Aurora Leigh is representative of the criticism Elizabeth Barrett was to receive for much of her work. There were critics who damned her for what they deemed "unfeminine ideas" and "indelicate images." Others objected to her honest confrontation of the social issues of the day, issues they considered inappropriate for poetry or women. Specifically, in Aurora Leigh they objected to the independence and worldliness of Aurora and were appalled at the inclusion of the seduction of Marian Earle. However, other critics applauded Elizabeth for the content of Aurora Leigh and considered it appropriate poetical material. For example, in commenting on the story of Marian Earle and its depiction of the results of class oppression and class suffering, the Dublin University Magazine declared: "… the writer who exposes to public view these gangrenes that eat into and corrupt the heart of the social body, discharges a high duty to humanity."26 Moreover, the New York Daily Times describes Aurora Leigh as a "thoughtful, profound reflection on the problems of society and individual life. In these Mrs. Browning is no visionary, nor is she that terrible thing, a didactic professor in petticoats. She has much to say.…"27 Truly, Victorian critics could not agree on how to receive Elizabeth Barrett's poetry. In several ways she was charting new courses for critics to follow.
The quality of Elizabeth Barrett's poetical works produced difficulties for many Victorian critics because she exploded the received myths they had perpetuated about the poetical abilities of women, and she enlarged the accepted spheres of poetry. Defying Victorian judgements of women's abilities, she refused to limit herself to the superficial, emotional lyrics that were considered women's poetical sphere and instead tackled serious intellectual, social, political, and philosophical issues of the day forthrightly, not as a Lady Poet but as an intelligent, human thinker who asked to be judged as such. De Quincey had asked the question of women, "If you can create yourselves into any of these great creators, why have you not?" He expected only embarrassed silence as his answer. When Elizabeth Barrett appeared on the poetic scene, the question became moot.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, in The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Ruth M. Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974), Book V, 11. 251-257.
- Peter Bayne, "Studies of English Authors," Literary World, New Series 19, (June 6, 1879), 360.
- Bayne, p. 360.
- Aurora Leigh, Book II, 11. 232-243.
- Bayne, p. 360.
- " Aurora Leigh," Dublin University Magazine, 49 (April 1857), 470.
- Dublin University Magazine, p. 470.
- Dublin University Magazine, p. 470.
- E. L. Bryans, "Characteristics of Women's Poetry," Dark Blue, 2, No. 10 (Dec. 1871), 490.
- Bryans, p. 484.
- Bryans, p. 490.
- Aurora Leigh, Book V, 11. 214-219.
- Bryans, p. 491.
- "Poetic Aberrations," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 87, No. 534 (April 1860), 490.
- "Poetic Aberrations," p. 490.
- "Poetic Aberrations," p. 490.
- Aurora Leigh Book V, 11. 184-188; 200-207.
- William Aytown, "Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 81, No. 961 (Jan. 1857), 34-35.
- "Mrs. Browning—Poems Before Congress," London Quarterly Review 16, No. 32 (July 1861), 405.
- "The Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, n.d., found in the Meynell Collection (Item No. 80), Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, 362.
- "The Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," p. 361.
- "The Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," p. 361.
- "This Year's Song-Crop," Fraser's Magazine. 44, No. 264 (Dec. 1851), 619.
- "Reviews; Casa Guidi Windows," The Athenaeum, No. 1232 (June 7, 1851), 598.
- "Reviews: Casa Guidi Windows," p. 597.
- " Aurora Leigh," Dublin University Magazine, 49, No. 292 (April 1857), 464.
- " Aurora Leigh. Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's New Poems," New York Daily Times, 9 Dec. 1856). Meynell Collection (Item No. 287), Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.
REBECCA STOTT (ESSAY DATE 2003)
SOURCE: Stott, Rebecca. "'How Do I Love Thee?': Love and Marriage." In Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pp. 134-55. London, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.
In the following essay, Stott traces Browning's philosophy of love through its important influences and into her poetry, particularly Aurora Leigh and Sonnets from the Portuguese.
On January 10, 1845, Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett for the first time, after reading her volume of poetry, Poems. He was a little-known thirty-two-year-old poet and playwright, she was an internationally renowned poet, an invalid, and a thirty-nine-year-old spinster. 'I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett—I do, as I say, love these verses with all my heart,' the letter said. Over the course of the next twenty months, they would write each other close to six hundred letters—one of the greatest literary correspondences of all time. The pair's last letter was exchanged on September 18, 1846, the night before the two left for a trip to Italy, and two weeks after their secret marriage. Their romance, which she would eventually credit with saving her life, lasted for fifteen years and spawned some of the world's most beautiful poetry.
This extract comes from an internet site dedicated to the history of Valentine's Day. The story of the Brownings' marriage and Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese have a powerful presence on wedding and romance internet sites, pages usually studded or embossed with cupids, roses and flowers, for the Sonnets from the Portuguese rank highly in the early twenty-first-century canon of poems-to-be-readat-weddings. The Brownings' union has become memorialised as one of the nineteenth century's greatest love stories (see Lootens, 1996a: 116-57) and their poetry has become 'exhibit A in almost any discussion of nineteenth-century romance' (Pinch, 1998: 7). Yet both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were fascinated as poets not only by the beauty, transcendence and pleasure of love itself, but also by the problems of its expression, by its institutionalisation in marriage, by its relationship to 'darker' emotions such as hate, obsession and possession, and by its relationship to power.
In this chapter I will examine Barrett Browning's love poetry, her attempt to express her thoughts about love and her struggle with what we might call the 'epistemology of love' (how do we know the loved person; how do we know love; how do we feel except through an already mediated set of literary tropes?). I will also explore Barrett Browning's treatment of the ethics of love (what is the role of thinking in love; what conditions justify giving up the self to another?), and the sociology of love (what happens to men and women when their love becomes institutionalised in marriage?). And I will show that, for a woman who has become an icon of romance and of idealised marriage, Barrett Browning was often fiercely critical and political in her analysis of marriage as an institution.
FROM THE AUTHOR
BROWNING DESCRIBES HER YOUNG SELF, HER AMBITIONS AS A POET, AND HER CONTEMPT FOR STEREOTYPICAL FEMININITY
Beth intended to be very much in love when she was fifteen,—but she did not mean to go so far as to be married, even at sixteen. She meant however to be in love, & she settled that her lover's name shd. be Henry;—if it were not Ld. Byron. Her lover was to be a poet in any case—and Beth was inclined to believe that he wd.beLd. Byron.
But Beth was a poet herself—& there was the reigning thought—No woman was ever before such a poet as she wd. be. As Homer was among men, so wd. she be among women—she wd. be the feminine of Homer. Many persons wd. be obliged to say that she was a little taller than Homer if anything. When she grew up she wd. wear men's clothes, & live in a Greek island, the sea melting into turquoises all around it. She wd. teach the islanders the ancient Greek, & they should all talk there of the old glories in the real Greek sunshine, with the right ais & ois—Or she wd. live in a cave on Parnassus mount, and feed upon cresses & Helicon water, & Beth might have said Grace after the sweet diet of that dream.
Poor Beth had one great misfortune. She was born a woman. Now she despised nearly all the women in the world except Madme.de Stael—She could not abide their littlenesses called delicacies, their pretty headaches, & soft mincing voices, their nerves & affectations. She thought to herself that no man was vain of being weaker than another man, but rather ashamed. She thought that a woman's weakness, she shd. not be vain of therefore, but ashamed. One word Beth hated in her soul.. & the word was "feminine". Beth thanked her gods that she was not & never wd. be feminine.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Excerpt from an untitled, unpublished essay. In The Brownings' Correspondence, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, p. 361. Winfield, Kans.: Wedgestone Press, 1984.
Love as Heaven
In a letter written to her sister soon after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning mused on the fact that people were talking about the poem as her 'gospel' and explained that the spiritual truths were not her own but were based on the teaching of the eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg:
I was helped to it—did not originate it—& was tempted much (by a natural feeling of honesty) to say so in the poem, & was withheld by nothing except a conviction that the naming of the name of Swedenborg, that great seer into the two worlds, would have utterly destroyed any hope of general acceptance & consequent utility … most humbly I have used [Swedenborg's 'sublime truths'] as I could. My desire is, that the weakness in me, may not hinder that influence.
(Letter to Arabella Barrett, Dec 10-18, 1856; cited in Reynolds, 1996: 339)
Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was the son of a professor of theology at Upsala who was driven to seek a scientific explanation of the universe and of the relation of the soul to the body and the finite to the infinite. He experienced a series of visions in the 1740s upon which he based a series of theosophical and visionary writings. Followers of Swedenborg's theosophical interpretations of the Bible formed the 'New Church' in London in 1778. Swedenborg influenced the works of many nineteenth-century writers, including the poets William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American feminist Margaret Fuller. His writings would also leave a mark on the writings of Honore Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, William Butler Yeats, August Strindberg and the philosopher William James.
Elizabeth Barrett, always hungry for philosophical and spiritual ideas but also temperamentally wary of dogma, approached Swedenborg's ideas from the earliest reading with some scepticism, as she wrote to Mary Mitford in 1842:
Do you know anything of Swedenborgianism? Swedenborg was a mad genius—there are beautiful things in his writings, but manifold absurdities,—and more darkness I do assure you though you may scarcely find it creditable, than in mine. Anthropomorphism, universal in application, is the principal doctrine. God is man in form & spirit,—incarnate essentially in Christ, a manifestation of God as He is—only one Person being recognized. Moreover all the angels are men in form & spirit,—and Heaven itself is in the shape of a man—that being the perfect form. The text insisted on is of course 'Let us make man in our image'—and then Scripture is preached away, dreamed away, fancied away into thin air—only, you know, Swedenbourg [sic] was inspired himself, & when a man says that's he's inspired, what can anybody else say?
(BC [The Browning's Correspondence] 6:128)
Yet she was right to identify the 'gospel' of Aurora Leigh as having its origins in Swedenborg's writings, for Swedenborg's central claim that 'The joys of heaven and eternal happiness are from love and wisdom and the conjunction of these in usefulness' (Swedenborg, 1995: 10) is the vision expressed by both Aurora and Romney at the end of the verse-novel:
The world waits
For help. Beloved, let us love so well,
Our work shall still be better for our love,
And still our love be sweeter for our work,
And both commended, for the sake of each,
By all true workers and true lovers born.(AL [Aurora Leigh ] 9:923-8)
Swedenborg taught that God was infinite love and infinite wisdom and that from the Godhead emanated both the material and the spiritual world. Because the two worlds had a common origin in God, they were connected through a series of 'correspondences'. Spiritual truths are therefore embodied in the material world. He also believed that the original divine order had been perverted by human beings who, using their free will, had gradually severed the connection between the spiritual and material worlds. The intervention of Christ had therefore restored order to the universe by creating a new external pathway through which humans could approach God, and the Second Coming would be accomplished, not in the flesh, but rather through an intellectual and spiritual revolution, which Swedenborg saw as being achieved through his own writings and through his revelation of the hidden truths of the Bible.
In Aurora Leigh, Aurora comes to a Swedenborgian understanding that love, rather than art, is what 'makes heaven' (AL 9:659). The poem moves towards a full revelation of Swedenborgian principles as Romney and Aurora reconcile their differences in a passionate declaration of the three central Swedenborgian ideas of love, wisdom and use, couched in the vision of a New Jerusalem and in language that borrows heavily from Sweden-borg's writings. Thus Barrett Browning casts Romney and Aurora as workers in an intellectual and emotional revolution which will transform society by opening the roads between the material and spiritual worlds. Within Swedenborgian teaching love and wisdom become manifest in use; indeed, 'Love and wisdom without use are not anything; they are only ideal entities; nor do they become real until they are in use' (Swedenborg, 1971: 875). 'Use is the doing of good from love by means of wisdom. Use is goodness itself' (Swedenborg, 1995: 183). So Aurora, always dedicated to her art, comes to understand the superior power of love in Book 9, at the point that she declares her love for Romney:
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven. (AL 9:658-9)
When she and Romney do embrace finally in Book 9, their embrace, though described in erotically physical terms, is also a spiritual one. Love and wisdom unite. The persistent crossing and bridging of the material and spiritual worlds is both the subject and the mission of the poem for, in Aurora's words, the role of the poet is expressed in Swedenborgian terms: 'to keep up open roads / Betwixt the seen and the unseen,—bursting through / The best of your conventions with his best' (2:468-70). In this scene of union the material and spiritual worlds are fused through their bodies and souls:
Could I see his face,
I wept so? Did I drop against his breast,
Or did his arms constrain me? were my cheeks
Hot, overflooded, with my tears, or his?
And which of our two large explosive hearts
So shook me? That I know not. There were words
That broke in utterance.. melted, in the fire,—
Embrace, that was convulsion,.. then a kiss
As long and silent as the ecstatic night,
And deep, deep, shuddering breaths, which meant beyond
Whatever could be told by word or kiss. (AL 9:714-24)
While the communion between Aurora and Romney is said to be beyond understanding and beyond words, communion there is nonetheless:
The intimate presence carrying in itself
Complete communication, as with souls
Who, having put the body off, perceive
Through simply being. Thus,-twas granted me
To know he loved me to the depth and height
Of such large natures … (AL 9:749-54)
This is a description of physical and spiritual union much influenced by Swedenborg's ideas on conjugal love:
The Lord's Divine providence is most specific and most universal in connection with marriages and in its operation in marriages, because all delights of heaven flow from the delights of conjugial love, like sweet waters from a gushing spring. It is therefore provided that conjugial pairs be born, and they are raised and continually prepared for their marriages under the Lord's guidance, neither the boy nor the girl being aware of it. Then, after a period of time, the girl—now a marriageable young woman—and the boy—now a young man ready to marry—meet somewhere, as though by fate, and notice each other. And they immediately recognise, as if by a kind of instinct, that they are a match, thinking to themselves as from a kind of inner dictate, the young man, 'she is mine,' and the young woman, 'he is mine.' Later, after this thought has for some time become settled in the minds of each, they deliberately talk about it together and pledge themselves to each other in marriage. We say as though by fate, by instinct and as from a kind of dictate, when we mean by Divine providence, because when one is unaware that it is Divine providence, that is how it appears. For the Lord unveils their inner similarities so that they notice each other.
(Swedenborg, 1995: 20)
The portrayal of the love of Romney and Aurora as a love which is inevitable (preordained) yet postponed until both are spiritually ready for union, is one aspect of the poem that may have had its origin in the ideas of Swedenborg. But while Swedenborg symbolises conjugal union as the sweet waters of a gushing spring, Barrett Browning's metaphor is characteristically more violent. She describes Aurora and Romney's embrace as an overflowing, but it is also a convulsion, a melting and an explosion. The metaphors of sexual desire and spiritual union are geological: it is like an earthquake, a volcano and a flood all at once, part of the geological violence and transformation of the old that will result in the New Jerusalem and new landscape envisaged at the end of the book.
Yet, characteristically for Barrett Browning, the poem also challenges Swedenborgian teachings at the same time as asserting them. Aurora begins to wonder about the implication of believing that love makes heaven—the implication for women in particular. After all, she has loved Romney for some time. Should she have refused him as she did when he proposed all those years ago? In particular, she worries that denying him then meant that she has been in a fallen state since, fallen from the heaven that she might have made:
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven. I, Aurora, fell from mine.
I would not be a woman like the rest,
A simple woman who believes in love
And owns the right of love because she loves,
And, hearing she's beloved, is satisfied
With what contents God: I must analyse,
Confront, and question; just as if a fly
Refused to warm itself in any sun
Till such was in leone [a constellation of the stars which signifies late summer] (AL 9:658-67)
As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out (1979: 577), the imagery of this passage reveals significant contradictions in Aurora's attitude to love. Aurora claims that her options as a woman are either to make heaven (to love) or to fall from heaven (not to love), yet being in love is also like being a fly basking in sunshine—satisfied, contended, unthinking, drunk with warmth and pleasure. Aurora claims that, in declining Romney's offer of love, she had refused to be 'a woman like the rest, / A simple woman' because instead of just accepting the gift of love at that point, she had insisted on analysing, confronting, questioning it. This refusal had resulted in her fall from heaven but had also ensured that she did not become a fly basking in the sunshine. The implication hangs for a moment that perhaps if she had been less proud when Romney had first proposed, more honest in her own feelings, the two lovers would not have had to suffer. Yet at the same time, the drama of the poem is created by that refusal and by the period of their joint exile from the 'heaven' of requited love, a period in which Aurora fulfils her vocation as a poet. It is also a period in which Romney is transformed; blinded, he comes to see Aurora not as a help-meet on a joint mission of reform, but as a woman and poet with a soul. Aurora's acceptance of love at the end of the poem is made possible precisely because they have both entered this struggle to understand, analyse and confront their feelings about each other.
Love is idealised in the poem as what makes heaven, but unthinking love is disparaged. Earlier in the poem, at the point at which Aurora refuses to marry Romney in Book 2, for instance, she offers an analysis of women who are prepared to settle for any kind of love, unquestioningly:
Women of a softer mood,
Surprised by men when scarcely awake to life,
Will sometimes only hear the first word, love,
And catch up with it any kind of work,
Indifferent, so that dear love go with it.
I do not blame such women, though, for love,
They pick much oakum … (AL 2:443-9)
Picking oakum refers to the practice of untwisting and unpicking old rope to be mixed with tar and used for ship's caulking. It was tedious and backbreaking work which made the fingers bleed, work often given to convicts and the inmates of workhouses. Barrett Browning claims therefore that where love is acted upon by women in unthinking ways, a life of enforced servitude will often follow. Although the poem endorses the work ethic, it does not endorse the domestic slavery which so often accompanied marriage. Aurora is, after all, refusing not Romney's love, but Romney's offer of marriage as work; Romney was, she tells him scornfully, looking for a fellow-worker, not a lover. So Aurora's claims that she had been wrong not to yield to love earlier are undermined by such alternative reflections and knowledge. As she describes the proposal scene, Aurora suddenly assumes a retrospective view of Romney's proposal and her refusal, wondering for a moment what would have happened if she had accepted his offer of love:
If he had loved,
Ah, loved me, with that retributive face,..
I might have been a common woman now
And happier, less known and less left alone,
Perhaps a better woman after all,
With chubby children hanging on my neck
To keep me low and wise. (AL 2:511-17)
These tensions between love represented as an entry into servitude and/or unthinking complacency, and love as a Swedenborgian 'heaven' are shown to be tensions between being a 'common woman' and a dissenting independent-minded, thinking one, as Aurora is. For love is both a divine condition to be aspired to, as she discovers, and also one that at least potentially represents an obstacle to her own dissenting selfhood and to her ambitions to write. Had she said 'yes' when Romney first proposed, her life plot would have been a different one.
So while Barrett Browning endorses, even preaches, Swedenborgian principles about love as that which 'makes heaven' in Aurora Leigh, she constantly casts these 'truths' within the social and political contexts that bear on women's lives. 'Sonnet 22' of Sonnets from the Portuguese also shows her questioning Swedenborgian doctrines, exploring the relative benefits of the earthly/material and the divine/spiritual worlds as a place 'to love in'. In this poem male and female lovers, perfectly unified in love, transcend the material plane and turn into eroticised angels, their wings on fire. Barrett describes this process of angelic transformation and transcendence and then stops it abruptly with her injunction to the lover to 'think'. This monosyllabic imperative in the middle of the poem forms a 'volta' or turning point (interestingly a volta which arrives half a line earlier than it would be expected within a Petrarchan sonnet and so takes us by surprise). At this point, having raised these two soul/angels in erotic rapture, she brings them sharply down to earth again. At least on earth they will be left alone, she says, and not be pressed upon by other angels, for the 'contrarious moods of men' recoil from pure spirits. At least on earth there will be a secluded place to 'love in' even though (and perhaps because) that space is rounded by 'darkness and the death-hour'.
When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it. ('Sonnet 22' )
Angels, so often disembodied and androgynous in Western art, are given tangible, heavy, erotic bodies here. Barrett describes souls as bodies, seraphic bodies which have their feet on the earth: 'When our two souls stand up erect and strong' (emphasis mine). Instead of casting souls as ineffable, insubstantial, shadowy presences, Barrett Browning fully embodies them, beautifully describing, for instance, the delicate curve and lengthening of the angels' wings. By doing so she challenges established binaries between the body and soul and sets up a 'correspondence' between the spiritual and material worlds. So while on the one hand the poem questions the Swedenborgian privileging of the spiritual plane over the material one by reasserting the worth of earthly love, it reconciles that tension by bringing the material and spiritual into correspondence. The romantic sentiments of mutually enjoined bodies and souls, of love as heaven and as a revelation of divine truth may sound clichéd to a contemporary reader, but for Barrett Browning it was part of a philosophical and theological system of considerable rigour and complexity.
The Epistemology of Love
Dorothy Mermin and Angela Leighton have both attended to the problem of reading the Sonnets from the Portuguese too reductively as direct autobiographical expressions of sincerity (Leighton, 1986; Mermin, 1986). Mermin instead emphasises the sonnet sequence's 'emotional and intellectual complexity, the richness of reference, the elaborate and ingenious conceits, and the subtle ways in which images are used both for their emotional power and to carry an argument' (145). It is this intertwining of emotional and intellectual enquiry, a quest to understand as well as feel love, that characterises these poems. In this respect the Sonnets reveal a philosophical concern with the 'epistemology of love'—the relationship between love and knowledge, and the ethics of love—what is the role of thinking and reflection in romantic love: is it inimical to feeling or an integral part of it?
I have already claimed that Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh idealises love but not unthinking love. Her love poetry is driven by the same concerns as Aurora's: 'I must analyse, / Confront and question' and the Sonnets are full of this concern to know, measure and define love. The most famous line, of course, is 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways'. As Adela Pinch points out (Pinch, 1998: 7), the first verb of 'Sonnet 1' and therefore of the whole set of poems is 'thought': 'I thought,' the speaker begins, 'once how Theocritus had sung'. The poet/speaker mocks herself here as the contemplative musing poet who while thinking about love, becomes aware of a mystic shape moving behind her who draws her backward by the hair:
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
'Guess now who holds thee?'—'Death,' I said. But there,
The silver answer rang,—'Not Death, but Love'. ('Sonnet 1' , ll.12-14)
This concern with the role of thinking in love echoes Aurora's musings in Aurora Leigh about whether she was right to have refused Romney's love. Barrett seems to be suggesting in this opening sonnet that the overcontemplative poet can risk losing heaven (love), yet the unthinking lover risks being turned into the 'common woman' who settles unquestioningly for the first declaration of love. The project of the sequence of sonnets is to work at that paradox—to integrate thinking and feeling.
Secondly, as Pinch points out, the sequence as a whole is obsessed with:
spatial relations, with questions of scale and size, with measuring which of the two lovers is greater, smaller, higher, lower, nearer, or further than the other [and that this is] a symptom of the poem's meditation, on a more phenomenological level, on what it might mean to have a person, literally, in one's mind. What, Barrett Browning wants to know, does it mean to turn a person into a thought?
(Pinch, 1998: 8)
Pinch argues that the poems question the ethics of such meditations by dramatising the conflicts between thinking, knowing and loving, with these conflicts coming to a head in 'Sonnet 29,' where the poet is once again struck by self-consciousness about her own thinking:
I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as will vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there's nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down—burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee. ('Sonnet 29' )
In this extended metaphor, the speaker's thoughts are cast as the vines about the tree that, by an excess of budding and growth, soon conceal the tree itself and threaten to strangle it (there is also an implication that the vines are like restrictive clothes which conceal the true shape of the loved one—for when they are cast off the tree becomes 'all bare'). The kind of thoughts represented here, produced by a dangerous proximity, are cast as destructive and inimical to true knowing. The tree can only renew itself by casting off the insphering thoughts/vines, bursting and shattering them. Again these metaphors of explosion and bursting are part of the violence of love and knowledge, suggesting that, through such epiphanic moments of throwing off, new knowledge is gained. Finally, it is important to note that for Barrett Browning it is the degree of proximity in which these thoughts have been produced that is the problem, not thinking in itself: 'I do not think of thee—I am too near thee'. In 'Sonnet 15,' for instance, which seems to pair with this one, an alternative kind of sight is represented, a vision of love which exceeds the object of love and travels into future time and space and ultimately to oblivion:
But I look on thee—on thee—
Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
As one who sits and gazes from above,
Over the rivers to the bitter sea. ('Sonnet 15,' ll.10-14)
And it is also thought and feeling enshrined or forced into words which is persistently problematised in these poems, not because Barrett necessarily believes that thought and feeling are possible without words, but rather that the words, phrases, conceits and metaphors that have been used to describe love in literature inhibit freshness of expression because they have been overused. After all, the first words of the sonnet sequence begin 'I thought once how Theocritus had sung'. She is thinking through the words of another as the poem begins, musing on a written text. Barrett persistently draws our attention to the way in which speech and writing, particularly literary writing, not only fashions experience, but also traps it in tropes, conceits and metaphors. She draws our attention to those habits and conventions of thought and representation that falsely or inadequately shape experience. Language—the attempt to fashion feeling into speech—is the paradox of these poems. Putting love into words must be done, particularly by lovers who are also poets, and yet the full expression of love is elusive. Literature and the conventions of writing can 'insphere' (contain, imprison, suffocate) established knowledge or can throw off the 'vines' of old knowledge, allowing us to see the tree as if for the first time. Barrett does not reject thinking about love but she does question our adherence to the old ways of knowing it, ways of knowing that have been controlled by writers and poets.
Nothing Like the Sun: The Literariness of Love
In the chapter on genre I showed how Barrett reused the sonnet form, pushing it to its limits, spilling over its confines in a way that mimicked the cut and thrust of charged, enquiring conversation, demonstrating how closely related these poems are to the love letters written by herself and Robert. The poems both utilise the conventions of courtly love and challenge them so that Barrett, for instance, in speaking as a woman, troubles the long-established gender conventions of the sonnet form of the male speaking-thinking lover-poet and the female silent-listening or absent object of desire. Here in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, as I said earlier, the poems become a duet or at least the reported half of an on-going conversation.
But there are other important ways in which Barrett recasts the conventions of courtly love in the Sonnets. They question, for instance, the established epithets and conceits of love established by the Petrarchan form in particular. Barrett was acutely aware in her letters and poetry of the literariness of romantic love, made all the more intense because she and Robert as poets were engaged in a shared quest to define their love for each other and experiencing the weight of literary tradition in doing so. Shakespeare had also wittily rejected established conceits ('false compare') in his famous Sonnet 130, struggling instead to find new ways of expressing feeling:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Several sonnets in Sonnets from the Portuguese address this problem of 'false compare'. 'Sonnet 13,' for instance, begins:
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? ('Sonnet 13,' ll.1-4)
Instead, in this sonnet, the speaker opts for silence as the best form of sincerity:
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. ('Sonnet 13' ll.9-14)
This conflict between potentially hollow speech and sincere silence is repeated elsewhere in the sequence. The speaker reminds her lover in 'Sonnet 21,' for instance, that although she needs him to reiterate his love like the cuckoo he must 'love [her] also in silence with thy soul' (l.14). In the following sonnet in the sequence, Barrett continues to engage with the problems of language and silence explored in 'Sonnet 13' as the speaker addresses her lover as a writer, commanding him to find new ways of expressing his love and not to pre-script and define their love in ways that will not accommodate change:
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love's sake only. Do not say
'I love her for her smile—her look—her way
Of speaking gently,—for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,—
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through love's eternity. ('Sonnet 14' )
But all the soul-searching about the impossibility of original expression of romantic love is not all in earnest. As Mary Rose Sullivan has shown, the Brownings' habit of echoing each other's words and of 'adapting, reforming, and returning them ever more freighted with meaning' began early in their correspondence and 'inevitably spilled over into their composition of poetry' (Sullivan, 1987: 57). There is much that is self-parodic and witty in Barrett Browning's Sonnets. In 'Sonnet 37,' for instance, the speaker laments the difficulty of originality and representation—writing about love, she laments, can be at worst a 'worthless counterfeit':
Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make,
Of all that strong divineness which I know
For thine and thee, an image only so
Formed of the sand, and fit to shift and break. ('Sonnet 37,' ll.1-4)
But while the poem strives for originality of expression, it culminates ironically with an image borrowed from one of Robert Browning's most well-known poems, My Last Duchess, in which the Duke draws the envoy's attention to a sculpture of 'Neptune … / Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me' (ll.54-6). In Barrett's sonnet, she ends by claiming that art is sometimes as hopelessly inadequate as commemorating salvation from shipwreck in the form of a sculptured porpoise, repeating Robert's image:
As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,
His guardian sea-god to commemorate,
Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort
And vibrant tail, within the temple-gate. (ll.11-14)
But while literature and the literary expression of love is often a hindrance to direct expression, the sonnets show how useful literary or artistic representation can be in providing tropes to think through. For instance, Barrett alludes to Tennyson's Mariana in the Moated Grange in one letter to Robert: 'I am like Mariana in the moated grange & sit listening too often to the mouse in the wainscot' (BC 10:254). But in a later letter she clarifies the analogy when she writes 'For have I not felt twenty times the desolate advantage of being insulated here and of not minding anybody when I made my poems? … and caring less for suppositious criticism than for the black fly buzzing in the pane?' (BC 10:271). The analogy is actually a difference, for unlike Mariana who suffers from an excess of feeling, Barrett's insulation has resulted not in emotional excess but in indifference to criticism. Throughout the sonnet sequences the burdensome legacy of Romantic poetry is used both as the material for new poetry and its adversary.
Love in Text; Love in Context
In Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart, Angela Leighton argues that Elizabeth Barrett Browning 'learned early to distrust the iconic postures of romance in favour of a socialised and contextualised account of desire' (Leighton, 1992: 87). This claim is everywhere confirmed by Barrett Browning's love poetry which relentlessly places love under a sociological microscope. Love does not exist in the abstract—it is always felt and acted upon by people shaped and determined by the ideas of their time, people in the world. For many women in the nineteenth century, love, however pleasurable or transcendent, was especially deterministic, for love was so often the entry point into a much more circumscribed world within the institution of marriage or outside it as a result of betrayal or a fall from respectability:
It is this sceptical awareness of the sexual politics of sensibility which marks out Barrett Browning's poetry from that of her predecessors. Love, in her work, is not a sacred ideal, removed from the contingencies of the world, but is dragged in the dust of that reality which was itself so hard-won an experience and a theme for her.
(Leighton, 1992: 544)
Barrett's ballads in particular address the danger of untempered feeling, of women who, like the 'women of a softer mood' evoked in Aurora Leigh (2:443), are consigned to a life of picking oakum because they love too much or too quickly or unwisely. In 'Bertha in the Lane' and 'A Year's Spinning,' the two heroines have been betrayed by absent lovers who do not even appear in the poem. In the first poem, the heroine, on her deathbed, confesses to her sister Bertha that she is dying of a broken heart. She had overheard, she says, her lover, Robert, declaring his love to her more beautiful sister in the lane. Still in love with Robert, still listening out for the sound of his footstep at the door like Mariana in Tennyson's poem, she dies self-consumed, yet refusing to blame either Bertha or Robert for their feelings. Instead it is the weakness of her own womanhood that has killed her:
Do not weep so—Dear,—heart-warm!
All was best as it befell.
If I say he did me harm,
I speak wild,—I am not well.
All his words were kind and good—
He esteemed me! Only, blood
Runs so faint in womanhood. (ll.155-61)
In 'A Year's Spinning' the betrayed woman, a spinner, has borne her lover's child which has since died. Her lament, like that of the dying sister in 'Bertha in the Lane', is not a call of revenge but rather one of despair about the weakness and vulnerability of women raised on a diet of false ideals and romantic love. These are the fragile 'women of a softer mood' resigned to picking oakum or death. Now that 'her spinning is all done' (l.5), her life and hope are extinguished. In 'The Romance of the Swan's Nest' the danger of self-deluding, self-consuming love is all the more sharply drawn as Barrett tells the story of 'Little Ellie' who sits beside a river imagining an idealised lover for herself in the language and imagery of romantic and chivalric love, straight out of a formulaic romance. In this fantasy, she imagines herself taking him to see the swan's nest among the reeds. In reality, while she has been dreaming, the swan's nest has been deserted and the eggs gnawed by rats. The dream has been violated.
The act of betrayal always happens offstage in these ballads for it is the consequences of the betrayal on women's lives that interest Barrett. So often the damage affects other women and children in the story: the spinner's shamed mother, the dead baby, Bertha who loses her sister because her beauty stimulated the act of betrayal. In 'A Romance of the Ganges', Luti, betrayed by her lover, reveals that betrayal to her rival Nuleeni and demands that Nuleeni become her accomplice in revenge. She demands that Luti whisper Nuleeni's name to her husband on their wedding day and again to their child when he asks about his father's deeds. These ballads show that untempered love is dangerous and often the result of the socialisation of women to expect to fulfil their lives only in a love plot (what we might call the imposition of a 'false consciousness'), a subject also addressed by other women writers of the nineteenth century from Mary Wollstonecraft to Harriet Taylor. In the ballads, Barrett persistently shows love as taking its place within an economy of power and sexual exchange. Indeed as Stone argues:
In her ballads of the 1830s and 40s, [Barrett] employs the starker power structures of medieval society to foreground the status of women in a male economy of social exchange, and to unmask the subtler preservation of gender inequities in contemporary Victorian ideology.
(Stone, 1995: 108-9)
The Politics of Marriage
Throughout her life Barrett Browning, icon of Victorian marriage and romance, was outspokenly critical of the institution of marriage and of many of the marriages she saw around her. 'Marriage in the abstract has always seemed to me the most profoundly indecent of all ideas,' she wrote to Mary Mitford during Robert's courtship (BC 12:63), continuing:
& I never could make out how women, mothers & daughters, could talk of it as of setting up in trade,.. as of a thing to be done. That life may go on smoothly upon a marriage of convenience, simply proves to my mind that there is a defect in the sensibility & the delicacy, & an incapacity to the higher happiness of God's sanctifying. Now think & see if this is not near the truth. I have always been called romantic for this way of seeing, but never repented that it was my way, nor shall.
While Barrett Browning valued love as transcendent, even divine, she was no romantic as far as marriage was concerned—she had always been critical of women who believed marriage to be the only fulfilment for a woman; even during her often lonely and reclusive life, she was no 'Little Ellie' conjuring an imaginary lover out of thin air. A dream recorded in her diary when she was twenty-five shows that here at least marriage was experienced as a nightmare of further incarceration not a release from her present circumstances: 'I dreamt last night that I was married, just married; & in an agony to procure a dissolution of the engagement' (D [Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning ]; 111). Even when Robert insisted that she consider marriage as the only way they could live together abroad, she procrastinated and deferred committing herself to a final decision (see Forster, 1988: 164-77); the love letters written in the six months before they married show Barrett wrangling and tormented about marriage and its relation to power and money. She shows herself uncertain about how to judge the materialism of wedding preparation (the trousseau) in a letter to Miss Mitford, 'A year for marriages, is it? Well—it seems so—and some marry unfortunately (or fortunately) without trousseaus' (BC 13:213). Watching the preparations for her cousin Arabella Hedley's wedding, Barrett commented: 'there does enter into the motives of most marriages a good deal of that hankering after the temporary distinction, emotion and pleasure of being for a while a chief person …' (BC 13:213). The expense of Arabella's wedding seemed grotesque to her: 'six dress pocket handkerchiefs, at four guineas each […] forty guineas of lace trimming on the bridal dress' (BC 13:185). She was haunted by her experience and memory of repressive or unhappy marriages, she wrote to Robert:
To see marriages which are made everyday! Worse than solitudes & more desolate! In the case of the two happiest I ever knew, one of the husbands said in confidence to a brother of mine … that he had 'ruined his prospects by marrying,'—& the other said to myself at the very moment of professing an extraordinary happiness,… 'But I should have done as well if I had not married her.'
And again only a few months before she agreed to marry him, she wrote:
When I was a child I heard two married women talking. One said to the other 'The most painful part of marriage is the first year, when the lover changes into the husband by slow degrees.' The other woman agreed, as a matter of fact is agreed to. I listened with my eyes & ears, & never forgot it … as you observe—It seemed to me, child as I was, a dreadful thing to have a husband by such a process.
Barrett was supremely conscious of how divided their experiences were and would be—marriage would establish very different rights and conventions of behaviour for them as men and women. Would they be able to resist the stereotypical male and female behaviour so visible in all the marriages around them?
Did you ever observe a lord of creation knit his brows together because the cutlets were underdone, shooting enough fire from his eyes to overdo them to cinders[…] Did you ever hear of the litany which some women say through the first course.. low to themselves.. Perhaps not! it does not enter into your imagination to conceive of things, which nevertheless are.
Not that I ever thought of YOU with reference to SUCH—oh, no, no!
The answer was to dissent, of course, to determine not to be a 'common woman' or a 'common man' in life and marriage (a determination which would be given to Aurora Leigh later), but the abuse of power, she felt, seemed to be enshrined in marriage—almost produced by it. She wrote the following letter on the anniversary of American Independence (at a time when she had already significantly begun to write 'A Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' which so powerfully attacks the institutionalisation of slavery and the abuse of power):
Oh, I understand perfectly, how as soon as ever a common man is sure of a woman's affections, he takes up the tone of right & might.. & he will have it so.. & he wont have it so!—I have heard of the bitterest tears being shed by the victim as soon as ever, by one word of hers, she had placed herself in his power. Of such are 'Lover's quarrels' for the most part. The growth of power on one side.. & the struggle against it, by means legal & illegal, on the other.
Her critique of marriage at this point is powerfully and astutely political. One wonders how, with this view of marriage, she could ever agree to marry, but at the same time one wonders how in the 1840s the Brownings might have lived together abroad without being married. Barrett Browning's critique of marriage did not decline after her marriage either; indeed she continued to write ever more politically about marriage and the abuse of women's rights. As Margaret Forster points out, 'the happier Elizabeth became with her man, the more furious she became at how men abused women' (Forster, 1998: 204).
The politics of marriage were most powerfully explored in Aurora Leigh. Romney in the course of the poem makes four proposals—two to Aurora and two to Marian. Three of these proposals are made, Barrett Browning shows us, for the wrong reasons, for Romney is driven by motives which are bound up with money, duty and inheritance. As Angela Leighton points out (1986), Aurora's answer to Romney's first proposal and Marian's answer to his second provide a critique of the system of values that underpin his dubious good intentions: 'Here's a hand shall keep / For ever clean without a marriage-ring', Marian replies to his offer of marriage. She is, she claims, already clean—she does not need his marriage ring to cleanse her. Aurora's rejection of his first proposal is based upon her understanding of what he has actually said which in her words amounts to the following statement:
'Come, sweep my barns and keep my hospitals,
And I will pay these with a current coin
Which men give women' (AL 2:539-41)
In paraphrasing Romney's proposal this way, Aurora shows her understanding of marriage as a transaction based upon law and money—marriage is the 'current coin' which men pay women in exchange for their labour. This analysis is also extended by Marian when she angrily asserts her rights as a mother:
'Mine, mine,' she said. 'I have as sure a right
As any glad proud mother in the world,
Who sets her darling down to cut his teeth
Upon her church-ring. If she talks of law,
I talk of law! I claim by mother-dues
By law,—the law which now is paramount,—
The common law, by which the poor and weak
Are trodden underfoot by vicious me,
And loathed for ever after by the good' (AL 6:661-9)
Barrett Browning, dissenter, is audible here in Marian's words, in this fierce analysis of the conflicts between common law and natural law. What is common is not always right. Instead, common law enshrines the rights of men against 'the poor and weak'. In this analysis she places herself in the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, George Sand, and Barbara Bodichon who wrote in A Brief Summary, In Plain Language, Of The Most Important Laws Concerning Women; Together With A Few Observations Thereon in 1854: 'Women, more than any other members of the community, suffer from over legislation' (Bodichon, 1854: 13).
Marriage was a political issue in 1856 when this poem was published. The Matrimonial Causes Bill was making its way through Parliament and would become an Act in 1857. The Act would allow wives who could prove extreme cruelty or desertion to obtain a divorce and empower courts to force estranged husbands to pay maintenance to their former wives. It would deny the husband rights to the earnings of a wife he had deserted, and returned to a woman divorced or legally separated the property rights of a single woman. Behind this Act was the much-publicised marriage of the poet and novelist Caroline Norton which drew public attention to the severe economic penalties which women suffered when they separated from their husbands. After leaving her abusive husband in 1836, Norton had been prevented from seeing their three sons and had been cut off financially for by law all she had once owned including her inheritance, was her husband's by marriage. After her husband's unsuccessful attempt to prove her guilty of an adulterous affair, Norton filed for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Her claim was rejected, however, as English law did not recognise cruelty as just cause for divorce. By this point Norton was earning money from her writing, but by law all her earnings belonged to her husband. Determined to use her personal misfortune to gather support for legal reform, she drew attention and support for her cause through the publication of pamphlets and the influence of her friends in Parliament, and in 1855, she published her most important pamphlet, A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth's Marriage and Divorce Bill, in which she reviewed the position of married women under English law:
- a married woman has no legal existence whether or not she is living with her husband;
- her property is his property;
- she cannot make a will, the law gives what she has to her husband despite her wishes or his behaviour;
- she may not keep her earnings;
- he may sue for restitution of conjugal rights and thus force her, as if a slave to return to his home;
- she is not allowed to defend herself in divorce;
- she cannot divorce him since the House of Lords in effect will not grant a divorce to her;
- she cannot sue for libel;
- she cannot sign a lease or transact business;
- she cannot claim support from her husband, his only obligation is to make sure she doesn't land in the parish poorhouse if he has means;
- she cannot bind her husband to any agreement.
In short, as her husband, he has the right to all that is hers; as his wife she has no right to anything that is his.
Marriage, and women's rights and ownership of property within it, was the subject of much conversation and writing in the mid-1850s; it preoccupied social reformers, legislators, churchmen, poets and novelists. The Act secured some property rights to wives who were separated from their husbands but it maintained men's legal rights to all marital property. Barrett Browning's commitment to examining the legal injustice of marriage was part of that series of conversations and part of her commitment to exploring the concerns of 'this live, throbbing age' (AL 5:203). 'No longer,' writes Angela Leighton, 'a poetry of "love of love", hers is a poetry which constantly asks about the conventions of power which lie behind love, and which affect the improvised expression of the heart … those systems of socialisation represented by sex, class and money, for instance, and the systems of literary meaning, represented by historical and political reference, for instance, everywhere make themselves felt' (Leighton, 1992: 80).
In The Ring and the Book published after Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death, Robert Browning memorialised his wife's language and understanding of love and marriage. The passage reads as a homage to her ideas (Swedenborg taught that marriage as a pure union existed in heaven among angels) and part of the on-going conversation between them about marriage as a flawed human institution, a 'conversation' that continued beyond Barrett Browning's death:
Marriage on earth seems such a counterfeit,
Mere imitation of the inimitable:
In heaven we have the real and true and sure.
'Tis there they neither marry nor are given in
Marriage but are as angels: right,
Oh how right that is, how like Jesus Christ
To say that! Marriage-making for the earth,
With gold so much,—birth, power, repute so much,
Or beauty, youth so much, in lack of these!
Be as the angels rather, who, apart,
Know themselves into one, are found at length
Married, but marry never, no, nor give
In marriage; they are man and wife at once
When the true time is: here we have to wait
Not so long neither! (The Ring and the Book, 7:1821-38)
The following abbreviations are used throughout the text
AL Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds, New York and >London: Norton, 1996
BC The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson and Scott Lewis, 14 vols, Winfield, Kan.: Wedgestone Press, 1984-1998
D Diary by E.B.B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832, ed. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1969
Bodichon, Barbara (1854), A Brief Summary, In Plain Language, Of The Most Important Laws Concerning Women; Together With A Few Observations Thereon, London: John Chapman
Forster, Margaret (1988), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, London: Chatto and Windus
Leighton, Angela (1986), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Brighton: Harvester Press
——(1992), Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Lootens, Tricia (1996 a), Lost Saints: Silence, Gender and Victorian Literary Canonization, Charlottesville, VA. and London: University Press of Virginia
Mermin, Dorothy (1986), 'The Damsel, the Knight, and the Victorian Woman Poet', Critical Inquiry 13:64-80
Pinch, Adela (1998), 'Thinking about the Other in Romantic Love', in Romantic Circle Praxis Series, http:www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/passions/pcts.html
Reynolds, Margaret (ed) (1996) Aurora Leigh, New York and London: Norton
Stone, Marjorie (1995), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Basing-stoke: Macmillan
Sullivan, Mary Rose (1987), '"Some Interchange of Grace": "Saul" and Sonnets from the Portuguese ', Browning Institute Studies 15:55-68
Swedenborg, Emmanuel (1995), Conjugal Love, trans. N. Bruce Rogers, New York: Church of the New Jerusalem
FROM THE AUTHOR
BROWNING TELLS HER CLOSE FRIEND MARY RUSSELL MITFORD ABOUT HER IDEA FOR A NEW KIND OF POEM; HER IDEAS WERE THE GERM OF HER NOVEL-POEM AURORA LEIGH
A few characters—a simple story—and plenty of room for passion and thought—that is what I want.… [P]eople care for a story—there's the truth! And I who care so much for stories, am not to find fault with them. And now tell me,—where is the obstacle to making as interesting a story of a poem as of a prose work—Echo answers where. Conversations and events, why may they not be given as rapidly and passionately and lucidly in verse as in prose—echo answers why. You see nobody is offended by my approach to the conventions of vulgar life in 'Lady Geraldine'—and it gives me courage to go on, and touch this real everyday life of our age, and hold it with my two hands. I want to write a poem of a new class, in a measure—a Don Juan, without the mockery and impurity,—under one aspect,—and having unity, as a work of art,—and admitting of as much philosophical dreaming and digression (which is in fact a characteristic of the age) as I like to use. Might it not be done, even if I could not do it? and I think of trying at any rate.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Excerpt from a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, December 30, 1844. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning: Interviews and Recollections, edited by Martin Garrett, p. 15-16. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.