Decorative Initial Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a prodigy of learning and poetry, published her first volume of verse when she was thirteen and in her thirties established herself as an authority on the Greek Christian poets. Her collected works include translations of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (1833) and Bion's "Lament for Adonis" (1833) as well as selections from other Classical authors. Enormously admired for her learning and her passionate moral and political commitments, Barrett Browning, whose fame much surpassed that of her husband during her lifetime, achieved the Victorian ideal balance between personal and political.

More than any other major Victorian poet, she explicitly and directly confronts political issues, particularly those concerning women. Like Tennyson, her husband, and many other contemporaries, she began as a disciple of Shelley who found the Romantic visionary mode compelling, and like them, she later developed a poetry of social, moral, and political commitment. Part of her sense of the poet's responsibility appears in her many early religious poems, but it appears even more as an attachment to themes involving domestic, international, and sexual politics. Her concern with English political and social conditions, which creates a poetry of political protest like Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt" (1843), appears in "The Cry of the Children" (1843) and similar works.

After settling in Florence after her elopement with Robert Browning in 1846, she took up the cause of Italian nationalism, and this subject produced Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860). "Mother and Poet" (1862), which bears the subtitle "Turin, after News from Gaeta, 1861," is a lyric spoken by the Italian poet and patriot Laura Savio upon learning that both her sons have died in the cause of Italian liberty. Combining her interests in the fate of women, the role of the female poet, and the events of the Risorgimento, this poem records the cost and the pain of the struggle.

Her concern with women's issues, particularly the dilemmas facing writers, inspire her two poems in praise of George Sand (1844) as well as her tributes to other women authors. Such concern also lies at the heart of her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh (1857). This poetic narrative, a woman's version of The Prelude (1850), tells the story of the young poet, Aurora Leigh, who lives in England with an unsympathetic aunt after the death of her Italian mother and English father. The poem's main action begins at the point her cousin Romney, a wealthy philanthropist and social activist, asks her to marry him. Denying that women have either the innate capacity or the position in society necessary to write important poetry, Romney clumsily tries to convince her to join his worthy cause. Barrett Browning's heroine rejects her cousin's proposal, succeeds as a poet, and observes events as he makes a fool of himself attempting to play Pygmalion and marry Marian Earle, a poor seamstress. After a series of melodramatic incidents, including the blinding of Romney, the two lovers unite and marry, both having learned the proper role of gender and power.

Aurora Leigh takes the form of novel-poem, a composite genre that drew upon the one literary form in which women authors excelled. According to Virginia Woolf, Barrett Browning "was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work is the true place for the poet." The novel-poem set in the contemporary world was adopted by many others including her husband in The Ring and the Book, The Inn Album (1875), and Red Cotton Nightcap Country (1873), and Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) in Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) and Amours de Voyage (1862). But few attempts to base a long poetic narrative upon the novel met with the artistic or critical success of Aurora Leigh.

Barrett Browning's poem employs a contemporary setting and contemporary social issues as a context for an inquiry into the relation between gender and genre. The poem, which explores the Woman Question, as it was called by contemporaries, dramatizes the modern woman's severe need for mothers — for, that is, nurturing political and literary female ancestors. In examining the growth and development of a woman poet, Aurora Leigh shows that women cripple themselves by internalizing patriarchal or androcentric conceptions of them. When Aurora Leigh first rejects her arrogant beloved, her rejection does not free her from the grip of interiorized male constructions of women, for she merely displaces Romney from the center of power, speaks about herself with images of male power, and feminizes him. Only when both can break free from the conceptual structures that oppress them can she fully become the woman, wife, and poet she wants to be.

In presenting her heroine's path to poetic and personal maturity, Barrett Browning not only explored the Victorian relation between gender and genre but she also created a female literary tradition by alluding to her predecessors. Her work draws upon novels written by women, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) being one major source: the female protagonist's status as an orphan, the figure of a cruel aunt, the proposal by St. John Rivers, and Rochester's blindness all appear in Aurora Leigh.

A second contribution to a female tradition appears in the poem's continual use of a gynocentric, as opposed to an androcentric, imagery. Barrett Browning's long narrative poem thus substitutes female, rather than male, types from the Old Testament and even when describing men uses female figures from myth as the source of analogy. These analogies and images, which are driven by the poem's most serious concerns, represent an important imaginative achievement in themselves.

Victorian Overview E. B. Browning

Last modified 1991