This discussion of the life and works of the poet comes from "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," an article which appeared in the 1874 Cornhill Magazine, pp. 471-90; the essay's first four pages, which discuss the nature of poetry, can also be found elswehere in the Victorian Web. PVA, who suggested including this work in VW, scanned the text, and GPL proofed the text, added subheadings, converted it to HTML, and linked it to other parts of VW. Vanessa Eisenman e-mailed GPL on 17 July 2005 to point out that GBS must be, not George Bernard Shaw, to whom the essay had been tentatively attributed, but the George Barnett Smith that Jennifer Kigma Wall mentions in her essay in VW.
[Elizabeth Barret Browning] has demonstrated what emotional poetry really means, in contradistinction to the poetry of simple art; and it cannot be said, either, that she has altogether come short in the matter of design — the design which stamps the greatest poets. Sensibility and [471/472] intuition, those endowments of supereminent importance to individuals whose greatness is to grow in proportion to their understanding and interpretation of human life, were in her united in a degree seldom witnessed. Her history, sparse as it is in facts as yet given to the world, is one of intense interest. It is well known how that existence with her was almost one long round of continuous suffering. Her retired life sent her more closely to the companionship of the dead, though she had naturally an eager and insatiable thirst after knowledge. Her own sufferings could' never daunt her in the pursuit of learning, and accordingly we find that as a scholar she was distinguished for the ripest erudition. Her account of the Greek Christian poets will serve to show in what direction a large portion of her studies lay; and it is in this work, we imagine, that we discern what was her own ideal of the true nineteenth-century poet. "We want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature," she says,
as it touched other dead things; we want the sense of the saturation of Christ's blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty.
This idea recurs again and again in different forms through her works. She yearns for poetry to be sanctified, to be made holy. This is how it was with the grand old Greeks, and how it should be now. It is because poetry is losing its sense of its intimate relations to God that it is in danger of dying out. And how is the sacredness of poetry to. be truly apprehended? By the method which Mrs. Browning adopted, of looking boldly into the human heart, and reading it fearlessly and trustfully. "Foole, saide my muse to mee, looke in thine hearte, and write." And poetry thus produced is that which preserves an everlasting freshness and fragrance. The human heart first, and Nature afterwards, were the teachers at whose feet our poet learned the deep lessons she subsequently transmitted to her species. By these were fostered in her a tenderness which breathes through all her writings, and whose spirit is mirrored therein as the blue sky mirrors itself upon the bosom of the deep.
To her, also, it may be said that poetry brought "its own exceeding great reward." In the company of the deep-browed poets, the monarchs of all the ages, she found consolation as well as intellectual life. With the fellowship of Æschylus, and Pindar, and Plato, and Sophocles, and Euripides, of the olden world, and Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakspeare of the modern, the burden of existence, that would otherwise have been insupportable, became comparatively light with her. When but a girl she was able to iead in the original some of, the greatest masterpieces of antiquity; and indeed almost herfirst work was an excellent translation of the Prometheus of her great favourite amongst the poets. Her introduction to and intimate acquaintance with Greek literature was in a large [472/473] measure due to the influence of her well appreciated and cherished tutor, Boyd, the blind author of a work upon the Greek Fathers, to whom she addresses some of the best of her Sonnets. But though the Greek was e language which afforded her the most delight, her acquaintance was not confined to this, her knowledge of the Hebrew being also most intimate, whilst the Bible in that language was amongst her most continuous studies. Little would men suspect in meeting her for the first time that within that slight and spiritual frame burned so much of the celestial fire. It was, perhaps, in consequence of the chance introduction of some literary question, that it was discovered how much leaxning existed beneath so unpretending an exterior. She was like those branches which hang nearest the ground because of the prodigious crop of luscious fruit which is not always at first apparent to the eye. The love of knowledge, however, deep and lasting though it remained, never subdued or modified in her that great gift of the poet, a burning earnestness or enthusiasm. At the last, as at the beginning of life, the flame shone brightly. It was no flickering, artificial light, kept alive because the poet must simulate an earnestness that is not possessed; but it left an impress and a character upon her work which could not be mistaken. Her song resembled that which fable has associated with the name of Sappho — a living voice, eloquent with passion. Something of her own intensity of feeling breathes in the lines when she speaks of
Electric Pindar, quick as fear,
With race-dust on his cheeks, and clear
Slant startled eyes that seem to hear
The chariot rounding the last goal,
To hurtle past it in his soul.
And Sappho, with that glorible
Of ebon hair on calmëd brows
O poet-woman! none foregoes
The leap, attaining the repose.
Had song been less to her than indissolubly bound up with her life, one thinks she must have wavered in her devotion to it. But in truth her appetite grew by what it fed on, and the weakness of the body only led to a further development of soul. We like to think of her as accepted Amongst the gods for her power over the divine art, and yet dear in her human relations for the exercise of a tenderness and a sympathy associated with the sex which make home a second paradise.
lizabeth Barrett Browning was born in London, in the year 1809, and was the daughter of Mr. Barrett, an English country gentleman. At a very early age she had written much that was worthy of living, though it was kept from all eyes save those of her father, whom she mentions in the first collected edition of her poems as "my public and my critic." Miss Mitford has described her as a "slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eye-lashes, and a smile like a sunbeam." [473/474] She possessed a grace and delicacy which almost defied representation. With so perfect a mental and spiritual organization it was not given, to her to be equally blessed in the physical. Always frail, it was her misfortune further to endanger her existence in 1887 by the bursting of a blood vessel on the lungs. The extremest care preserved her life, though the incident was succeeded by a long period of weakness and suffering. Two years afterwards, before she had quite recovered, she was again, assailed by misfortune, experiencing the keenest anguish on witnessing the death of her favourite brother, who was drowned at Torquay. A long period of danger followed this catastrophe, and when she was at length able to be removed to her father's house, it was only to become an invalid, with the prospect of a life couch-ridden to its close. For seven long years this period of seclusion lasted; but during that time Miss Barrett devoured all the books she could bring within her reach, and cultivated the art which was afterwards to bring her immortality. In 1846, that is, when she was in her thirty-seventh year, came the principal event of her life — viz. her marriage with Mr. Browning. He bore her away to Italy, where softer skies brought back that health which had so long forsaken her in her native land! The union was most felicitous, and the influence upon Mrs. Browning's genius must have been great. On this influence, however, we cannot now enlarge, for the husband of the author of Aurora Leigh still lives. Browning died in Florence in 1861, after testifying, in some of the noblw strains ever penned, her extraordinary devotion to the land of her adoption.
One beneficial result of the comparative seclusion of Mrs. Browning's life was the habit of introspection which it induced, and which, fortunately for posterity, led to,the production of some of the finest subjective poetry extant. We can understand to some extent her admiration for Wordsworth, after noticing the tenor of her own existence, which ran in somewhat similar grooves. Where would have been all that wealth of ancient lore which, while not destroying the freshness of her poetry, has added to it a classic grace and a finish most admirable and remarkable? The excellent balancing of her faculties and acquirements had a most happy effect on her work, which is always good in conception, however defective it may occasionally be in expression. Her intellect was keen and comprehensive, not deficient even in masculinity; and it was only in her theories — witness, for instance, references to social questions in her greatest poem — that she occasionally failed to exhibit that solidity of judgment, or practicality of judgment rather, which is generally associated with the opposite sex. As a poet she undoubtedly looked at men, and things from the intensely personal view, in the sense, we mean, of individuality. Instead of taking abroad sweep as Dante — whom, we conceive as being merged in the mighty conceptions of his spirit — she had rather that other gift of the poet, of making herself, the individual, apparent in all her writings. It is this quality which adds so greatly to the force of her lyrical effusions — indeed, without this quality no poet had better attempt the writing of lyrics. So far as we take this form of poetry, we understand [474/475] its force and value to be that it is an appeal from one individual to another; and the most successful lyrics have been those which excited in us a particular, and not a general, interest. A momentary etion upon the lyrics of Burns and Béranger will attest the truth of this assertion. It was a portion of Mrs. Browning's strength — and by no s an unimportant one — that she was able to achieve this result. Who will not continually feel indebted to her for many of her shorter poms, which have revealed so much of the human heart in them, and awakened impulses and sensations which have delighted and cheered the spirit? That was a happy observation passed upon her by one critic, who described her as Shakspeare's daughter. The same large-heartedness which pertained to the great dramatist is shown by the later poet. The benevolent eye looks out on men and nature with the same imperishable love. If the world has at any time possessed its ideal poets, she is worthy to be counted one of them.
From her earliest years, as will, indeed, have been discovered already, Mrs. Browning appears to have had the passion for books — a passion which is referred to more than once in Aurora Leigh — and her studious habits, as well as that of writing, were encouraged by her father. Her early years are a reproach to any who, with stronger health and equal opportunities, take no heed to the storing and assimilation of knowledge. In all that we read of her subsequent works, the value of those early of insatiable study is apparent. Knowledge has made the full and the richness of the stores is not without effect upon her original compositions. How must her fragile frame have thrilled when, in the curse of her reading, as she says —
Because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.
Doubtless, the slumbering possibilities in her nature were touched by this, and it must have been with wonder that the lights of the great bards first flashed across her vision: something, it would have appeared to her, of the nature of coming into a priceless inheritance. And the time arrived when till that she had acquired became of real moment to her. Let those would despise erudition in a poet place Mrs. Browning beside other poets, and see how they lose by comparison — not only in that original power in which she was undoubtedly stronger. The poet cannot gain one fact too many; the poorest and commonest coinage which he receives from other mints may be transmuted into the purest gold in his own. The best minds have recognised this, and have laboured diligently after the perfection of knowledge, feeling that none are so gifted, even the gods, but that they may learn somewhat from men.
To attempt to pass in review all that Elizabeth Barrett Browning has left as her legacy for future ages is not our intention. We purpose, however, to examine some of her works individually before offering any criticisms of a general character upon her genius. A Drama of Exile, which was a comparatively early production, is acknowledged to possess great [475/476] sublimity in its ideas, though the conception as a whole is asserted to be a failure. For ourselves we were struck with the poetic wealth, which it displays, and failure as applied to it must be taken in the comparative form. There are those whom the majestic Milton has not satisfied by his chef d'oeuvre ; but the most fastidious will admit that if he has not touched the highest heavens he has come very near them. Of course, it is not intended for a moment that the Drama of Exile stands forth as magnificent conception as Paradise Lost, which Mrs. Browning's poem compels us to bring to memory, being upon the same subject; neither can it be said to be perfectly original, coming after that epic: but in the later poem we find much in point of sustained language which reminds us of Milton's work. Milton's feet were more firmly set, and be has the stately march of A conqueror. Mrs. Browning can only in this work show her possibility, not her ultimate perfection. This is an excellent touch due probably partly to the fact that it was written by a woman; Gabriel, address Lucifer, says: —
If thou hadst gazed upon the face of God
This morning for a moment, thou hadst known That only pity fitly can chastise:
Hate but avenges.
These lines put into the in the mouth of Adam, are also exquisite: —
The Highest being the Holy and the Glad,
Whoever rises must approach delight
And sanctity in the act.
But for a passage of unfaltering eloquence, and one instinct with true poetic fire, take the address of Adam to Eve after the twain have left Paradise. To demonstrate Mrs. Browning's power over blank verse cannot refrain from citing a portion of it: —
Raise the majesties
Of thy disconsolate brows, 0 well-beloved,
And front with level eyelids the To come,
And all the dark o' the world!
Shall chant itself its own beatitudes
After its own life-working. A child's kiss,
Set on thy sighing lips, shall make thee glad;
A poor man served by thee, shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee, shall make thee strong;
Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense
Of service which thou renderest. Such a crown
I set upon thy head, — Christ witnessing
With looks of prompting love — to keep thee clear
Of all reproach against the sin foregone,
From all the generations which succeed.
Thy band, which plucked the apple, I clasp close,
Thy lips, which spake wrong counsel, I kiss close,
I bless thee in the name of Paradise,
And by the memory of Edenic joys [476/477]
Forfeit and lost, — by that last cypress tree
Green'at the gate, which thrilled as we came out,
And by the blessed nightingale which threw
Its melancholy music after us, —
And by the flowers, whose spirits full of smells,
Did follow softly, plucking us behind
Back to the gradual banks and vernal bowers
And fourfold river-courses — By all these,
I bless thee to the contraries of these,
I bless thee to the desert and the thorns,
To the elemental change and turbulence,
And to the roar of the estranged beasts,
And to the solemn dignities of grief,
To each one of these ends, — and to their END
Of Death and the Hereafter.
It will be apparent that for one who had not yet attained the full maturity of her powers to write like this there must have been a great future in store. Whatever deductions might have to be made as regards the want of stupendousness in her conceptions, there was still sufficient in her earlier work to prove that there were scarcely any heights she might not subsequently attain. In the chorus of Eden spirits which comes into the Drama of Exile there is an abundance of lyrical music an power, given in metres which have since been most successfully adopted by other poets. In another poem, The Seraphim, we observe the same noble moral glow which pervaded the drama to which we have just alluded. The time of the poem is that of the Crucifixion, and the sublime tragedy handled with a delicacy and at the same time a force as nearly befitting so lofty a subject as we can well imagine. The deep religious spirit which pervaded Mrs. Browning led her frequently to the choice of topics in some way connected with the great verities of the Christian religion, in which she had a profound and intense belief, as will have been gathered, not only from repute, but from the attitude assumed in her works, by anyone who has made acquaintance with them. The fault which are principally to be noted in her earliest poems are those related to art, a knowledge of which rarely comes at the outset to the most precocious. Before art can be exhibited, there must not only be capacity, but work accomplished — work compared with previous work, and each stage showing an advance upon that which went before. Although Mrs. Browning was never at any period of her career as distinguished for finish as she was for other and more important qualities, there is yet a considerable difference in this respect between her first effusions and her later lyrics. Her strength and pathos, however, generally overwhelm all other considerations in the reader's mind, whose attention is seized and retained by personal influence. It is the poet who does not throw himself entirely into his creations who is mostly eminent for finish. The value of the diamond to him consists in the way in which it is set, and he would prefer a stone of inferior water if it exhibited excess of polish to one much more massive if some touches of the rough still adhered to it. Yet, we are by no means contending that [477/478] great poets are not also great in art. We are speaking only of finish, which is but a portion of art, and that not the most important. In art are combined the larger qualities of fitness, proportion, and truth, which are, the masters of finish the world over. In all these three points Mrs. Browning was the successful artist; and he who objected to her because he discovered here and there a false rhyme or a defective line, would have lost sight of the towering mountain ahead in stumbling over a molehill. Having said thus much, let us at the same time frankly admit that the sense of adequateness is not strongly perceived in the lengthy poems to. hich we have adverted. We discover it in the highest degree in Paradise Lost, and ought, of course, to find it in all work which is the matured result of a grand imagination — work that has attained solidity by frequent communing with and lifelong study of the bases on which it was grounded. So, had these poems of Mrs.Browning's been written at a later stage the beneficial result would have been apparent, in this one point at any rate upon which we are insisting. The unevenness in her execution would also have been considerably diminished, a matter of no small importance in conceptions of that nature. But take the poem and the drama as they stand, with all their faults, and we repeat there is still room for a feeling of genuine admiration over the result achieved.
Mrs. Browning's chosen field of study was the one productive of her first work of great importance, viz., her rendering of the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus. She had most probably been incited to this work by the companion, before mentioned, of her studies in Greek. It is a deed of no small magnitude for a young lady to accomplish this at all, and might well daunt even deeper students; but she had a profound appreciation of the old poet, and brought her love for his sublime tragedy to bear upon the task. It was scarcely to be expected that she would obtain a complete success, and she herself admitted that the translation was defective. She accordingly recast it, substantially changing the form of many passages. Though on reading it we gain the impression that it is a considerably Anglicised Greek drama, the vigour exhibited, and the true poetical fervour which is thrown around it, make it very welcome. The vocabulary of passion employed is rich and varied, whilst the rhythm affords scope for considerable poetic effects. In this, as in her other translations, she desired it to be understood that her one great idea was to catch the spirit of the original. The choruses are excellent, and possess, in addition to much music, all the fire which is essential should burn in poems which have for their aim the depicting of. the ecstasies and the writhings of passion. A Lament for Adonis, from Bion, is very happy and full of a warm imagery, and indicates, besides, the instinct and apprehension of the original poet.
The genius of Mrs. Browning had two sides — the lyric and the dramatic — she had little special gift for either the idyllic or the epic. For the idyllic she was not either sufficiently didactic or intransitively calm; :for the epic her emotions were too keen and her sensibilities too quick and [478/479] lively. Her longest poem has nothing of the epic about it, being in fact neither more nor less than a series of dramatic scenes. It does not profess to give the triumphant progress of a hero or a heroine, but to unfold to us the inner life of its principal character. In a word, it is an Autobiography in verse.
Considering first her lyrical capabilities — for it is really by means of these that her immortality is most secured — we are bound to say that they are of the highest order. Campbell was a great artist, but on reading his lyrics we are struck with the fact that they are in a large measure the product of a skilled mind rather than of a real singer. He has been succeeded by Tennyson in verbal perfection; but to our mind neither of these true poets is the equal of Mrs. Browning in the matter of the lyric. Yet so high is our estimate of the authors of Hohenlinden and Locksley Hall that no other poets in these later times, save the subject of this article and two others, can be put into comparison with them for real lyrical power. One of the two latter is Shelley, the other Burns, who is superior of Shelley, and indubitably at the head of his race: and for this reason, that he put more of his heart into his verse. Soul, not culture, thus gave us the best of our lyric poets. It is on the ground assigned n regard to Burns that we should give Mrs. Browning the next place aniongst the moderns for lyrical genius, though these two poets were as wide asunder as the poles in all other respects. Let the reader dispassionately compare the lyrics which have been written by our principal singers during the past two or three generations. He will find, we think, that the position we have assumed is one which can be maintained. Shelley undoubtedly exhibits the true lyrical fire, but his poems are not so varied as those of Mrs. Browning; while her pathos is deeper than his and that of all his compeers. His imagination was, perhaps, somewhat higher, and he soared. into cloud-land more frequently; but the heart, which gave Burns his power, was the strength of Mrs. Browning. Shelley was almost too ethereal, too spiritual, and the consequence was that the human was somewhat overshadowed. His sensibility was of the keenest description, and many of his lyrics bear testimony to the truth of his averment that
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in cuffering what they teach in song.
One cannot help thinking that Shelley's natural place in the world would be that of a spiritualized Spenser; and if that calm could have come to him which alone can furnish the poet with the opportunity he ought to have, there is no knowing but he might have given us a work rich enough to justify this fancy of him. As it is, between writhings and groanings, the paroxysms of a much-tried spirit, he wrote those exquisite lyrics and poems, which we should be indeed loth to lose from our literature. Mrs. Browning had not the intense naturalness of Burns, and though both felt acutely, yet in character and temperament they had nothing in common. [479/480] But, as we have said, the mainspring of the power of both was in the power of the heart. They worked upon different principles and under different circumstances. Burns was moved to joy or sorrow by the impressions he drew from outward nature; Mrs. Browning, on the contrary, found that nature received a tinge of melancholy or happiness from her own emotions. They are thus perfect contrasts in everything except the one great endowment of genius. And if the word epigrammatic may be used to denote that power which Burns had of describing an object in nature or a human emotion, Mrs. Browning was certainly not so epigrammatic as the nortbefnl. singer. Leigh Hunt once referred to our poet as the sister of Alfred Tennyson, but the relation does not strike us as of the happiest. it does not set in the proper light either relatively to the other. In the first place, there is a good deal that is feminine (in the best sense) about the genius of Tennyson, whilst occasionally there is that in Mrs. Browning's poetry more masculine than anything to be found in the Poet Laureate. In truth, we do not see much good in these comparisons at all; the happiest expression yet given utterance to is the one previously mentioned, which describes her as Shakspeare's daughter. We are able to see some meaning in this; we can feel that her genius stands in the same relation that of the transcendent poet of the world as does a daughter to her parent. The lesser is the true miniature representation of the greater.
The precise order in which Mrs. Browning's lyrics were written has never been stated, and it is not possible to arrive at a correct chronology with regard to them by internal evidence. The dates of several, however, are well known: and amongst the earliest of her productions that entitled A Vision of Poets, written in a very attractive, though unusual metre. This vision of men of "foreheads royal with the truth," as beheld in the magnificent temple of poetry, is one of her most successful as well as most graphic conceptions. No words are wasted in painting the portraits; to each of the world-famous men are appropriated but a few lines, yet how telling these are! —
Shakspeare, on whose forehead climb
The crowns o' the world: 0 eyes sublime
With tears and laughters for all time!
The national poet's eminence was never more felicitously indicated than in these simple words — that is, more of him can be grasped than pages, of criticism could accomplish, though the poet's description is by no means exhaustive. Other excellent touches are those devoted to Euripides, Lucretius, "nobler than his mood," Goethe, Chaucer, Milton, Schiller, —
And Burns, with pun'gent passionings
Set in his eyes: deep lyric springs
Are of the fire-mount's issuings.
And poor, proud Byron, gad as grave
And salt as life, forlornly brave,
And quiv'ring with the dart he drave.
And the lesson — it is worthy of the Vision. Is it well for the poet to [480/481] born to suffer, and to die unrecognised and unrewarded? Verily so; he has lived for truth and beauty — scarcely two as the author tells us — and should therefore be content. His experience has been, after all, better than that of the lower man, with lower pains and less transporting pleasures. He will be crowned, but crowned with no ordinary crown. His highrst glory is to know, however the end is gained. And after death will have two lives — one in the Beyond and one in the Past, in the songs he has left behind him. Thus the end of the whole matter is reached, the conclusion being that "Knowledge by suffering entereth, and Life is perfected by Death." The lesson in some of its applications is not new; the martyrs to truth in whatever shape have always taught it, but now the poet-martyrs teach it. For they are martyrs too freuently; and that is not martyrdom simply which affects or destroys the body. The spirituality of Mrs. Browning's nature shines in this poem; she affords some clue as to her ideal. It is a strain singularly pure and lofty, and shows a developing imagination which augured powerfully and well for succeeding work. Its burden is more cheerful than that of The Two Voices, a poem cast in the same mould, and to which the thought of the reader inevitably reverts while reading the Vision. Its meaning is not to be restricted alone to the class of beings with whom it deals upon the surface, for the conclusion is a triumphant one for the whole of the human race, whose ends of life are also made sacred by the same method. Having read this poem, one rises with a more hopeful heart to engage in the world's conflict.
We pass on from such poems as The Romaunt of Margret and Isobel's Child with reluctance, for there is much in them both of concentrated strength and music which we could wish to have pointed out. Some have chosen them as well nigh the happiest efforts of the poet, and they certainly are amongst the most beautiful notes of her lyre. Even the rhymes seem to possess a melancholy befitting the subjects, whilst the mere repetition of the words "Margret, Margret," attains to real pathos in the cunning hands of the writer in the former poem. A singular affection for subjects which have in them the deepest anguish and suffering was early apparent in Mrs. Browning. The spirit very seldom danced, though when it did, the music was as true and fitting as the funeral dirge, which she more frequently gives us. Wandering amongst her poems is like standing in the forest alone, with the wailing wind and the flying rain as the only assurances of an existence sublimer than our own. But the profoundest depth of our heart is reached thereby. We would there had been no need for the lament and the sorrow, and yet we would not have lost those mysterious thrills of the soul which her power has evoked. We must follow the poet in her quest of truth, follow her wherever she leads us, for by these means shall we emerge out of the thick folds of darkness into the broad light of day. This is one reason why we have such an admiration for, and attachment to her genius. Wherever she leads us, it is to make us better. Does she show us the [481/482] poor whom we too, often oppress? It is that we may know where have erred, and that in the future our hands may be washed clean from oppression and cruelty. Does she sometimes apparently darken the spirit? It is only to make it reflect so that it may endeavour to grope through the mysteries of life and nature up to God. Intellectual doubts are frequently disposed of in a very summary method, and one which has at sundry times in the world's history been most effective; she see their lowering forms gradually attenuate and disperse before the calm eye of Faith. Whatever of evil was rampant in the world, this could not be crushed out of her. To her, it was not always necessary to understand all the wrong that she beheld; she saw it, and hated it. She has helped men by her writings to do something towards making an end of it. She has been a mouthpiece for the poor and miserable; the light of love beams on her forehead and dwells in her eyes; the Divine feeling of compassion has swelled in her bosom, and for this reason, as for others, she has her place with those who are beloved of the human race.
In proceeding to indicate what we consider some of Mrs. Browinging's most admirable lyrics, we must decidedly name among the chief, The Rhyme of the Duchess May. This ballad has in it not only a quaintness which conveys us back to the days of chivalry, but a strength of expression which is generally absent in the productions of that period. It bears unquetionably the stamp of genius. The poet for the time has completely forgotten herself, projecting her thoughts so far into the subject as to realise a most intense and tragic phase of human existence. There is the ring of melancholy in the lines, which is deepened by the constant recurrence of the allusion to the passing bell. The whole conception is well worked out, and the powers of the writer are not frittered away before the close of the poem, as is too frequently the case with lyrics of similar length. The perfection of what is touching is reached in Bertha in the Lane, where the dying maiden tells with simple pathos the incident which has led to her own heart's breaking. There is nothing forced here; indeed, the language in some passages does not rise higher than that of actual conversation, the only adventitious poetical aid given to the setting of the st being that of the rhyme, which again is well chosen. The author wisely avoided the slightest straining after effect, leaving the natural pathos in the story to accomplish the end which she desires. Lady Geraldine's Courtship is a romance which almost necessarily comparison with [Tennyson's] Locksley Hall, and what is strange about the two, Mrs. Browning has, in our judgment, most truthfully drawn the male characters while Tennyson has been the happier in all else in his poem. The poet who loved Lady Geraldine has many excellences, but his vocation has, not properly imbued him with the kingly spirit, and he fails in the strength and robustness which we should expect. Besides, we quickly grow indignant that he should be so slow in reading that which should have been patent to his eyes. The character of the Earl is well drawn, his natural dignity being caught for us in the few lines devoted to his limning — [482-483]
Just a good man made a proud man, — as the sand rocks that border
A wild coast, by circumstances in a regnant ebb and flow.
The old story of love springing where it listeth, unforced and unexpected, is once more dilated upon, and brought in this instance to a satisfactory summation.
But let us pass on to The Cry of the Children, one of the noblest remonstrances against the greed and oppression of mankind which have ever been uttered. Its intense pathos could only surely spring from a woman's heart, wounded in its love for the human by deeds enough to make the heavens blush. We have heard something of the sorrows of the factory children, but these lines have brought them close to us, and compelled us to feel that the poorest and weakest are our brethren and sisters. When was the anguish of a young spirit grasped so clearly as in the following lines, which are supposed to be spoken by the little workers amongst the iron wheels — those wheels which roll on ruthlessly, scarcely giving time for rest? —
Two words, indeed, of praying we remember,
And at midnight's bout of harm,
Our Father," looking upward in the chamber,
We say softly, for a charm.
We know no other words except "Our Father,"
And we think that, in some pause of angels, song,
God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,
And hold both within His right hand, which is strong.
"Our Father!" If He heard us, He would surely
(For they call Him good and mild)
Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely,
Come and rest with Me, my child."
England has cleared herself from something of the reproach contained in from whence these lines are taken, and by God's grace she will be, perhaps, wholly free from stain in the (let us hope not far distant) future. Thare are other poems which exhibit the same large sympathetic heart as the one founded upon the miseries of the factory children, such as Mother and Poet, and The Cry of the Human, which latter reminds the world how many
Lips say, "God be pitiful,"
Who ne'er said, "God be praised!"
She felt as did that other poet of the poor, of whom we are proud, for all who are in any way crushed or bruised by the pressure of society and social dictinctions, or of social misfortunes. To be despised or to be sad was the way to be sure of her deepest interest. This is a trait which will serve to keep her memory green, for who among us will willingly let die the names of our philanthropists — those who have been genuine in the active and written expressions of their sympathy? One likes to linger over the point how lofty genius steps down with more sincerity from its high estate to acknowledge fellowohip with the mean and the wretched, than do the quasi-philanthropists who consider that [483/484] the claims of humanity are met by the doling out Of a Pittance to who may appeal to their condescension. Not always, yet very often, the great intellect is the index to the generous and simple spirit.
To mark the range of our author's powers, compare such poem as A Child's Thought of God with those on Napoleon, or Casa Guidi Windows. How sweetly and beautifully the first-named closes!
God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across His face,
Like secrets kept, for love, untold.
But still I feel that His embrace
Slides down by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place:
As if my tender mother laid
On my shut lips her kisses' pressure,
Half waking me at night, and said,
"Who kiss'd you through the dark, dear guesser?"
This is better theology than the orthodox damnation with which we terrified in our youth by narrow-minded bigots, who have probably ruined many a soul by preaching that God is powerful and vindictive, instead of God is love. We want more of the teaching which we get in the pages of this woman-poet. Then note how from these sweet and happy thoughts we can turn to matter more bold and striking, as in The Dead Pan, which has a truly musical ring with it; Cowper's Grave, an immortal tribute to a suffering singer; Crowned and Buried, an appreciation of great and deathless Napoleon; but, above all, in this class of effort, Casa Guidi Windows. This poem exhibits Mrs. Browning in her greatest intellectual strength. The fabric is solid and enduring; the poem as sustained as anything which she has written, and more perfect than her remaining longer one. Clearly her feeling was in this work as well her imagination, and the combined powers have given us something which cannot fail to live.
Everyone who knows anything at all of the poet is familiar with her great love for Italy, one of the strongest passions of her life. It is in this poem that she chiefly unfolds to the world her feelings with regard to emancipation of that country. From the Casa Guidi windows at Florence, her favourite city, she watched the struggle for liberty in which It engaged against Austria, and the assistance rendered towards this object by Napoleon III., without whom probably it would never have been accomplished. It was in praise of this champion that she wrote some of her most impassioned strains. She knew the deceased Emperor at his best, when there seemed strongly upon him an enthusiasm for the cause which he had espoused that would be sure to go straight to the heart the generous and impulsive poet; and in her utterances, therefore, she was lavish and unrestrained. To many in England this over-warmth of feeling will seem strange, but till we have felt all the bitterness which she felt a degraded nation, and have seen the conqueror arise to lift her from [484/485] the dust, we cannot say how deep our gratitude might be to such conqueror, his subsequent career notwithstanding. Our concern, however, is with the poems, including those entitled Poems before Congress, in which Mrs. Browning set forth that patriotism which, to be true, she claimed, should not be manifested in behalf of one's own country alone. In Casa Guidi Windows the imagery is rich and the language flowing, worthy partners of the idea which engrossed the mind. In the course of the poem beautiful legends of Savonarola and Michael ADg810 are laid under contribution to heighten the charms of the song of their country; and the closing pages of the poem contain a charming episode in relation to the poet's infant son, whom she calls her young Florentine, he having been born in that city. She has thus connected her native land and that of her adoption more closely together, and claims nearer relationship to Italy than she ever felt before, through the link furnished in her child. It is impossible to do more than refer to the extraordinary wealth and strength of imagery which the poem contains; but as some justification for the high opinion we have expressed concerning it, we annot refrain from extracting the passage in which, as before mentioned, the poet addresses her son: —
The sun strikes through the windows, up the floor;
Stand out in it, my own young Florentine,
Not two years old, and let me see thee more I
It grows along thy amber curls, to shine
Brighter than elsewhere. Now, look straight before,
And fix thy brave blue English eyes on mine,
And from thy soul, which fronts the future so,
With unabashed and unabated gaze,
Teach me to hope for, what the angels know
When they smile clear as thou dost. Down God's ways,
With just alighted feet, betvveen the snow
And snowdrops, where a little lamb may graze,
Thou hast no fear, my lamb, about the road
Albeit in our vain-glory we assume
That, less than we have, thou hast learnt of God.
Stand out, my blue-eyed prophet! — thou, to whom
The earliest world-day light that ever flowed,
Through Casa Guidi windows chanced to come!
Now shake the glittering nimbus of thy hair,
And be God's witness that the elemental
New springs of life are gushing everywhere.
It is, we imagine, almost universally accepted that to write the Sonnet excellently is about the most difficult performance in the domain of poetry. At any rate, it is the one branch of the art least frequently successfully achieved. It is questionable whether we have more than three or four English poets who can be credited with the highest execution in this respect. But to these three or four must be added the name of Mrs. Browning. After Shahspeare, we should be inclined to maintain that she is the equal of any. For proof of this, let the reader turn to her [485/186] Sonnets from the Portuguese, which, under a disguised name, are own sonnets. To us they seem to fulfil all the requisites of the sonnet, including strength, imagery, sweetness, propprtion or art, and massiveness. They are certainly equal to all of Wordsworth's and Milton's. The sonnet, with the great poets, has been generally most successful when personal to themselves.. They appear to have caught their passion and confined it within bounds, so that the sonnet, in master hands, becomes, as it were, "foursquare to all the winds that blow." There is no weak corner — all is solid and compact.
These sonnets by Mrs. Browning bear upon them her own very distinct individuality, and, as a means of setting her truly before her readers, are more explanatory than any other of her writings. Let us study them for a moment. In the first, the poet presents us with a picture of her mind at the period when she looked for Death as the release from a mortal imprisonment, whose shadow was laid deeply athwart her. The sonnet is exceedingly fine, and is as follows: —
I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was 'ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shapt, did move
Behind me, and drew me 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!"
Then comes a description of love, whose power nothing can conquer and which man is helpless to destroy. Spirits "but vow the faster forth, stars." Yet, following on, we come to a declaration of her own unworthiness, on the part of the singer, to be thus discovered and made blessed. The gloom is still too heavy about her, and will not be dispersed. She is fain to cry —
What hast thou to do,
With looking from thy lattice lights at me,
A poor, tired, wand'ring singer, singing through
The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
The chrism is on thine head, — on mine, the dew,
And Death must dig the level where these agree.
How beautiful and how pathetic are these lines! And the strain is continued, with no diminution of sadness, through several succeeding sonnets. The soul has found its counterpart, yet bids it begone; the proffered happiness is too great for it; it must not be. "Go from me!" is now the cry; but the spirit is evidently yielding to the conqueror, for it adds: [486/487]
The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine,
With pulses that beat double.
The record of life progresses, and the great argument is discussed, "Can to give what I can give?" Witness the seventh and immediately subsequent sonnets, for their dissection of the love passion, as through and permeates the being. Truly autobiographical, indeed are these confessions; the seal of genuine experience is upon each one with its alternating hopes and fears, and its unfolding of a woman's heart. Surely finer subjective poetry than this was never written. The poet speaks to us without veils, and we listen eagerly to the revelation. From the sadness and gloom we emerge at length into daylight; the cypress has yielded to the rose. Love is justified; it asks for and gives all. Troths are exchanged, and the singer has given up the grave for the sake of him who is now to be her life. We then see the plan of the whole work. First, we had the soul expecting death, then Life revivified by Love; then the grave put behind the soul; and lastly, comes the sequel, the marriage of those whose history has been traced in the series of poems now about to conclude. Thus the poet muses, as she stands midway in her existence — the past behind her, the blissful future immediately in view: —
"My future will not copy my fair past."
I wrote that once; and, thinking at my side
My ministering life-angel justified
The word by his appealing look upcast
To the white throne of God, I turned at last,
And there, instead, saw thee, not unallied
To angels in thy soul! Then I, long tried
By natural ills, received the comfort fast,
While budding, at thy sight, my pilgrim's staff
Gave out green leaves, with morning dews impearled.
I seek no copy now of life's first half:
Leave here the pages with long musing curled,
And write me new my future's epigraph,
New angel mine, unhoped for in the world!
But to show what the wonderful depth of woman s love is, and to reach what seems the absolute fulness of human expression, we have the following triumphant song at the close of this personal history we have been examining: —
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose [487/488]
With my lost saints — love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tea'rs, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after Death.
We have thus glanced briefly through this remarkable seeries of psychological poems, one of the most precious bequests which a poet can leave us, revealing, as they do so clearly, the inner life of the writer. After their perusal, just as in the case of a study of Tennyson's In Memoriam we feel that we have done more towards grasping the character of the poet than we are able to do by an intimate acquaintance with all her works. The unity of the Sonnets from the Portuguese is precise and definite; no link in the cbain can be withdrawn, without destroying the value of the whole. There is no hesitancy in the utterance; we here see Mrs. Browning at her highest, when she has passed through the noviciate of her art, and risen to the perfection of song. The sonnets glow with rapture, are exquisite in expression, and perfect in form. Taken, collectively, and in the light of the one passion which they trace, from its inception to its culmination, we know nothing anywhere to compare with them. Intellect and passion are combined in them in an equal degree and together fused into wondrous music.
The love poetry from the hand which wrote thus passionately — including compositions other than the sonnets — would in itself, its entirety, form a complete study, for its variety, sweetness, and pathos. But there yet remain to us some remarks on the work upon which chiefly, the author's fame is conceded to rest — Aurora Leigh. A wide diversity of opinion exists with regard to its merits, and to the position which it ought to occupy in modern literature. The writer herself in inscribing it to her cousin, described it as the most mature of all her works, and the one into which her "highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered." Our own view of it is that, as a whole, it somewhat inconsequent; it lacks unity, for a poem of such magnitude;` but oven in these higher respects, though not perfect, it is equal to anything produced this generation. When we come to regard it in other aspects, however, our praise is almost necessarily unbounded. It is a poem which we could imagine Shakspeare dropping a tear over for its humanity. Its intense subjectivity will exempt its influence on men from decay. Were we not amazed with the beauty and fulness of its poetry, we should be struck with its philosophy. The following lines might almost be taken as a digest of the whole teaching of Carlyle: —
Get leave to work
In this world — 'tis the best you get at all
For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction. God says "Sweat
For foreheads," men say "crowns," and so we are crowned,
Ay, gashed by some tormenting circle of steel
Which snaps with a secret spring.
Get work, get work;
Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get.
The author's views on Art are set forth with some fulness. Art, we [488/489] presume, notwithstanding all the darkness which has been cast around it by much speaking, means (if we are bound to describe it as concisely as possible) the closest and most perfect realization of the various forms of Truth which it is in the power of man to attain. .Some such idea as this certainly possessed the mind of Mrs. Browning; and it was her opinion that that wasreal art which assisted in any degree to lead back the soul to contemplate God, the supreme Artist of the universe. Yet Art, even her was not the highest, the ultimate —
Art is much, but Love is more!
O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
As a solution for many of the problems of social life Aurora Leigh must be pronounced a failure. It exhibits a wonderful sensitiveness to the evils resulting from the imperfect conditions of society, but it shows no powers of reconstruction. Its principal attraction, after its poetry, which stands supremely first therein, lies in the series of pictures of human life, in its varied phases, which it presents, and also in its power of analysis of the human heart. Sincerity is also a prominent characteristic of the revelations which it makes; it is an autobiography in which nothing is kept back, and the inner workings of a woman's heart were never more clearly transcribed. Unevenness characterises the narrative, but daring speculation and rich thought are embraced within the lines. There are more passages of lofty and impassioned poetry within the covers of this one book than are contained in any single lengthy modern poem which we have knowledge. From the level of occasional mediocrity we pass on to sublime imaginative heights. In this poem we have a vantage ground from which we survey the panorama of human life, illustrated by the sun of genius. To attempt to extract its beauties would be futile; it is a garden in which every flower of sweetness blooms. Its aroma is amongst the most fragrant in literature. Or again, to change the figure, the poem is like a mine which yields more and more as the human digger presses it. When he first enters into possession he beholds the faint yellow streaks which betoken the golden treasure, but it is the subsequent labour which brings to light the actual El Dorado.
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning's stature as a poet]
One grand result of Mrs. Browning's literary career has been to disprove the assertion that women cannot write true poetry. Such a taunt maybe considered as disposed of for ever. If we are to believe tradition, Sappho wrote the finest lyrics the world has seen; but our own generation has behold woman's genius take even a wider range. No woman, as yet, has written a great epic, or dramatic poetry of the highest order; but how restricted is the number of men who have done this! What there is in nature of woman, however, to forbid her rivalling even the highest we do not know; all we can say is, that genius, the dower of the gods, in its most transcendent manifestation, has, up to the present, been bestowed upon man. It may be, nevertheless, that we shall yet see the 489/490] female complement of our great men — only, it cannot be obtained, unless woman have a wider personal sphere. Still, it is most interesting to note that, in this nineteenth century, she has demonstrated the possibility of a future equality. What novelist, for instance, has more conclusively made good his claim to rank almost with the highest, than George Eliot?. How many of our artists have excelled Rosa Bonheur in her own special, gifts? What writer has exhibited a greater breadth of imagination and power than Georges Sand ? Lastly, where is the poetry which can be considered superior to Mrs. Browning's? In poetry, fiction, and art, at any rate man has little supremacy to boast of for the last forty or fifty years. We do not mean that his genius may not have over-topped, in individual cases, that of woman, but the difference has not been so perceptible as in past ages. Woman is now more abreast of man. Her altitude is no longer, when compared with him, that of Mont Blanc beside Chimborazo. It is more than probable that we shall never behold a female Homer, Plato, or Shakspeare; but anything short of these woman may, and most probably will, become. Her passion is as deep, if her ambition be not so great, as man's. As her sympathies widen and she bears more of the burden of the world, experience — which, in its greatest depths and most extended scope, has hitherto largely pertained to man — she will produce work which shall be as potent and beautiful as his, and possess the same inherent powers of immortality.
Meanwhile, let us be just to what she has already accomplished. A dispassionate examination of the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning can, we maintain, only lead to this result — that she is the equal of any poet of our time in genius. In particular qualities she may appear inferior to some who could be cited, and whose names will irresistibly suggest themselves; but in others she is as indubitably their superior; and, until we can decide who is greater, Byron or Wordsworth, Shelley or Coleridge, Homer or Shakspeare, we care not to assign her precise position. One thing is certain, however, her immortality is assured — she stands already crowned. As long as one human heart throbs for another she will be held in high esteem. Her poetry is that which refines, chastens, and elevates. We could think that with herself, as with one of her chracters, "some grand blind Love came down, and groped her clasped her with a kiss; she learnt God that way." And who were her teachers? Can we' ask that of one who said, "Earth's crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God?" The emerald of a thousand valleys, embroidered by the silver threads of meandering rivers; the grandeur of the everlasting hills with their lofty and jestic calm; the terrible rolling of the restless and unsatisfied sea; the stars that at midnight shine, looking down upon us like the eyes of those we love; above all, the whisper of God as it thrills through the human heart — these were her informers and teachers, the sources of her eminent inspiration. She sang of all these that men might be nobler, freer, and purer. Her apotheosis follows of Divine right with that of all the leaders of mankind: God endowed her, and we exalt her.
G. B. S.
Last modified 18 July 2005