'Byron, Coleridge ... how many more? .. . were contemporaries of mine without my having approached them near enough to look reverently in their faces ... and young as I was, I cannot get rid of a feeling of deep regret that, so, — it shd. have been' (Be 7:319). Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806, eleven years after Keats and six years before Browning. Her first published works, The Battle of Marathon (1820) and An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826), pre-date the appearance of Tennyson's juvenilia in Poems by Two Brothers (1827). Her formative years therefore belong to the Romantic, not the Victorian period. But her affiliations with Romantic poets and traditions have been largely unexplored, with the exception of her connections with Wordsworth. Dorothy Mermin's conclusion that for the young Elizabeth Barrett 'as for the young Matthew Arnold Romanticism meant mostly nature poetry, especially Wordsworth's' (63), is shared by Angela Leighton (1986, 13) and Helen Cooper, while Kathleen Blake and Antony Harrison alternatively emphasize Wordsworthian elements in the poetics of Aurora Leigh. Margaret Reynolds considers Barrett Browning's general adherence to the 'tenets of Romanticism', yet again singles out only Wordsworth among the poets (AL 13).
Although there is little reason to question [49/50] Wordsworth's importance as one of Barrett Browning's Romantic precursors, there is good reason to question both the idea that she saw him principally as a nature poet and the neglect of other equally important Romantic influences on her cultural formation. She identified Wordsworth as the 'poet-hero of a movement esssential to the better being of poetry' (CW 6:304) less because of his gendered representations of nature than because of his experiments with poetic diction, the ballad form and marginalized dramatic speakers, which significantly influenced her own ballads and dramatic monologues. Her other most ambitious poetical works published from 1820 to 1844, the subject of this chapter, reveal lines of influence and resistance connecting her not only with Wordsworth, but also with Romantic writers collectively. Margaret Morlier has illuminated one of these lines in analysing Barrett Browning's complex critique of Romantic representations of the goat-god Pan: her depictions of Pan bring out the egoism and the violence associated with Pan's attempted rape of Syrinx that male Romantic poets characteristically leave in the background (137). This chapter considers some of the many other lines of transmission connecting Barrett Browning to the younger generation of male Romantic poets in particular: Keats, Shelley and above all Byron.
Like Victorianism, Romanticism is notoriously difficult to define. Jerome McGann concludes that it is better to speak of 'phases of Romanticism' (107-30); while in Romanticism and Gender Anne Mellor takes issue with McGann himself in observing that 'we can no longer continue to speak monolothically of "British Romanticism", of a "Romantic spirt of the age", of "the Romantic ideology", (209). Generally, however, the work of influential critics such as M. H. Abrams, [50/51] Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman through the 1960s and 70s marked a shift away from the focus on nature as the primary subject in Romantic poetry to a focus on the preoccupation with epistemology and with 'imagination, vision and transcendence' in Wordsworth as well as other Romantic poets (Mellor 1). McGann's critique of this approach as a replication of Romantic ideology marked another general shift in critical focus, this time to the instability of perception and language in Romantic texts, and to the ideological conflicts and political and social realities repressed by the preoccupation with vision and transcendence, in Romantic poets and their critics alike. Meanwhile, new historicist and feminist critics began to question the traditional approach to Romanticism in terms of six major male poets writing in the 'higher' poetical genres — an approach evident in McGann's The Romantic Ideology itself. As Mellor suggests, 'what we have traditionally defined as "Romanticism'" might be better conceptualized as '''masculine'' Romanticism', in opposition to a still largely uncharted "'feminine Romanticism'" with very different 'thematic concerns, formal practices, and ideological positionings ... To mention only the most immediately obvious, the women writers of the Romantic period for the most part foreswore the concern of their male peers with the capacities of creative imagination, with the limitations of language, with the possibility of transcendence or "unity of being", with the development of an autonomous self, with political (as opposed to social) revolution, with the role of the creative writer as political leader or religious savior' (2-3).
While my previous chapter indicates that 'feminine Romanticism' was undoubtedly very important to Barrett Browning's development, I nevertheless focus here principally on her connections with 'masculine [51/52] pattern Mellor attributes to Romantic women writers. It is true that her 1838 volume, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, contains a certain amount of domestic and memorializing poetry in the vein of Hemans and Landon — poetry leading Antony Harrison to conclude that she was primarily concerned with constructing female subjectivity and extending the domestic sphere (114-19). But Harrison arrives at this conclusion without considering the lead poem in the 1838 volume or Barrett Browning's other most substantial works up to 1844. Leighton more persuasively observes that 'Barrett Browning begins where L.E.L. left off in locating female conventions of sensibility within 'systems of socialisation' and 'social reality'; yet she still defines her as 'a true inheritor of the tradition of female sensiblity which Hemans and L.E.L. had popularized' (1992,80). My own view, to the contrary, is that Elizabeth Barrett wrote much of the time as a 'true inheritor' of the male Romantic poets. As Mellor acknowledges in treating both Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights as 'an example of "masculine" Romanticism' and the features of 'feminine' Romanticism in Keats' works, any writer, 'male or female', can occupy either subject position (4). Like Brontë, Barrett Browning endorsed the 'masculine' Romantic values of 'revolutionary energy, of imagination, of that life-force in nature and the mind which Percy Shelley called "Power'" (Mellor 204). Moreover, because her primary medium is poetry and because she was familiar with classical models, her formal practices are more closely associated with 'masculine Romanticism' than Brontë's Wuthering Heights is. Both the subject and the compositional process of Barrett Browning's unfinished poem 'The Development of Genius' reveal how much she was influenced [52/53] by the self-writing practices of the male Romantics. Despite its eighteenth-century form, the earher An Essay on Mind similarly reflects her self-reflexive concern with epistemology and with what Wordsworth described as 'the growth of the poet's mind'. Although her attempt to construct the 'unitary, transcendental subjectivity' Mellor associates with Wordsworth's 'egotistical sublime' was thwarted by her gender (149), Barrett Browning is remarkable for her highly self-conscious and overt poetic aspirations, particularly in contrast to a self-repressed writer like Dorothy Wordsworth.
She also endorsed the male Romantic vision of poets as the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world', to use Shelley's famous words. This key component in 'the Romantic ideology' critiqued by McGann and others persists in Barrett Browning's works from her juvenilia to her maturity, although she subtly subverts certain aspects of it herself in Aurora Leigh. Many of her works from 1820 to 1844 also reflect the intermixed strains of Romantic revolutionary idealism and millenialism later apparent, in a revised and gynocentric form, in Aurora Leigh. What tends to disappear is the Romantic Hellenism she initially shared with Byron, Shelley and many others, the predilection for masculinized images of the sublime, and the use of generic forms favoured by the Romantics: descriptive meditative lyrics, the lyrical drama, and allegorical or visionary poetic modes like that employed in Keats' The Fall of Hyperion, which Barrett Browning's 'A Vision of Poets' (1844) uncannily resembles.
Her fascination with the Titanic figures of Prometheus and Satan and the ambitious daring of her revisionary impulse are the features of Barrett Browning's poetry up to 1844 that most obviously link her to 'masculine' Romanticism and to the 'Satanic [53/54] School' of Byron and Shelley in particular. Significantly, she referred to her 'early association with "Fire-thieves!", (BC 4:34). Her comment captures not only the Romantic Prometheanism reflected in her love of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, which she translated once in 1833 and again in 1845, but also her emulation of her Romantic precursors, all of them 'fire-thieves' too in their rebellious revisioning of their precursors. Her revision of Aeschylus in The Seraphim (1838) produced a lyrical drama akin to Prometheus Unbound in several respects, reflecting as Shelley's text does a later phase of Romantic Prometheanism. In the 1844 Poems, Aeschylus recedes in importance while Milton and Dante, the two precursor-rivals who dominate the works of the major Romantics, become the principal focus of Barrett's revisionary enterprise. Much as Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley and Byron engage in the revisionary 'wrestling' with Milton mapped out in Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading, she sets out to 'complete' Milton's Paradise Lost in A Drama of Exile, thereby engaging in one common type of 'revisionary swerve' (Anxiety of Influence, 66). In the process, she simultaneously echoes and revises Byron's Cain, itself a rewriting of Milton's angelology and metaphysics. 'A Vision of Poets', the other major work in her 1844 Poems, is written in Dante's shadow rather than Milton's, although it also strikingly reveals the difficulties she experienced in trying to enter an entire tradition of 'king-poets', to use her own term.
In her study of female creativity, Paula Bennett argues that Bloom's paradigm of the 'anxiety of influence' is 'at best only indirectly relevant' to the struggle of the woman poet. 'The woman writer's principal antagonists are not the strong male or female poets who may have preceded her within the tradition, but the inhibiting voices that live within herself — [54/55] voices arising out of her fear that 'in fulfilling her destiny as a poet, she will be forced to hurt or fail those whom she loves ... Her struggles, in short, are not literary but part of life' (10). Much in Emily Dickinson's or Christina Rossetti's response to Barrett Browning casts doubt on Bennett's assumption that women writers' anxieties are not concerned with the forbidding example of powerful precursors. But it seems even less applicable to Barrett Browning, whose principal struggles were with an alienating tradition of poetical 'grandfathers'. These struggles were necessarily 'literary', although feminist critics since Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have revised Bloom's emphasis significantly by analysing the 'anxiety of authorship', not the 'anxiety of influence', apparent in her earlier works (Madwoman 49,69-70).
While I consider several manifestations of Barrett Browning's 'anxiety of authorship' below, I place greater emphasis on the remarkable audacity of authorship her works between 1820 and 1844 reveal. In the process, I make fairly direct use of Bloom's paradigm because Barrett Browning's audacity as a woman poet makes her very much like the male Romantic 'strong poets' as Bloom describes them — although we should not forget that some Romantic women writers also displayed a remarkable 'authorial self-confidence, even arrogance' (Mellor 8). Barrett Browning furthermore resembles the male Romantics, however, in being obsessed by poetic origins and a sense of belatedness; and like them, she begets herself as a poet through bold acts of creative 'misprision' or misreading. In keeping with Bloom's model, her works up to 1844 also enact a 'primal scene of instruction' among the progenitors who both fostered and inhibited her own creativity (Map 41-62).
Given her status as a daughter in the house of the [55/56] literary fathers, Barrett Browning's formation understandably does not follow the Freudian Oedipal pattern of Bloom's paradigm. It is less overt and more internally conflicted, like the struggle of daughters with fathers, that aspect of the 'family romance' Freud neglected. Nevertheless, her development generally reflects the phases of poetic incarnation Bloom outlines. Thus her earliest works like The Battle of Marathon embody the initial phase of desire for 'absolute assimilation' with poetic precursors, while subsequent works manifest the phase in which this desire is 'uneasily allied to a competitive element' presaging the third phase, the 'rise of individual inspiration' . This crucial phase enables entry into the fourth, fifth and sixth phases, in which 'poetic incarnation proper' takes place (Map 51-55). Bloom's map of poetical evolution of course reflects his reliance on Romantic organic metaphors for the growth of the poet's mind. But the fact that his paradigm is itself a 'repetition' of Romantic ideology (McGann 95) makes it all the more applicable to Barrett Browning, given her participation in that ideology.
For somewhat different reasons, the 'patriarchal Bloomian model' (Gilbert and Gubar 48) is also relevant to Barrett Browning's poetical development because Bloom's masculinist, muscular poetics replicate the androcentric Romantic ideologies that her audacity of authorship confronted and helped to undo. It is no accident that the genealogical metaphors underpinning the Bloomian model are precisely those that Barrett invokes and subtly subverts in representing the grand company of immortal 'king-poets' in 'A Vision of Poets'. Bloom's unremitting focus on a mighty male line of poetical fathers and sons who 'wrestle' in Oedipal rivalry over the 'whoring' mother-muse of inspiration makes his poetics, if anything, more [56/57] exclusively phallocentric than the tradition the young Barrett faced in the wake of the major Romantic poets. Such extreme androcentrism has invited acts of misprision on the part of feminist critics, who have appropriated and applied Bloom's model in ways that illumine its blindness as well as its insights. Indeed, Elisa Kay Sparks observes, 'Any woman, any feminist literary critic, who wants to discuss the creative process and ... to retell the myth of poetic engenderment, must confront T. S. Eliot and Harold Bloom as her two strongest, male critical precursors.4
My use of Bloom's paradigm of poetic influence is intended as just such a retelling of 'the myth of poetic engenderment', in keeping with Barrett Browning's own revisionary mythopoeis culminating in the textual practice of Aurora Leigh. As Cooper suggests, the metaphor of 'fire-thief' applies particularly well to Barrett Browning because her 'disobedient act of writing' as a woman in a male poetic tradition 'resonated to Prometheus's theft of fire from the Gods' (15). The works of her earliest years express a Promethean audacity similar to that embodied in Aurora Leigh, although an audacity without a solid basis in experience and poetic practice. 'Ah, when I was ten years old, I beat you all you & Napoleon & all, in ambition', she confessed to Horne in 1841 (Be 5: 110). In a convolution not accommodated by Bloom's map of poetic incarnation, the bold confidence and high poetical ambitions of Barrett Browning's precocious youth were subsequently muted by the anxieties of gender conspicuous in the works she wrote in her late teens, her twenties and her early thirties. Yet her youthful audacity never entirely disappearedeven in the face of the domestic ideology of 'true' womanhood that increasingly dominated the early Victorian period. The fire-thief retained her essential [57/58] audacity, although her acts of begetting herself as a poet necessarily became more oblique than Bloom's metaphors of overt rivalry suggest.
The persistence of Barrett Browning's Promethean aspirations through the 1820s and 30s helps to explain the poetical awakening that resulted in the 1844 Poems, the collection in which her youthful audacity of authorship resurfaced with renewed force, this time grounded in her maturing poetic powers and in her sense of an emerging tradition of women writers. Alan Richardson has noted the 'colonization of the feminine' evident in the Romantic poets' incorporation of attributes conventionally associated with women, including maternal feelings. What we see in Elizabeth Barrett's 1844 Poems is nothing less than a counter incursion into the field of high poetic conquest dominated in her youth by the male Romantics.
'Altho' ambition is a grand angelic sin, I fell a good way from the sphere of it, soon after I left the nursery', Barrett wrote to Kenyon in 1838 (BC 4:16). In the. nursery, the young Barrett's ambition was fired by her reading of the Classics and of Pope, as she told Horne in 1843. 'The Greeks were my demi-gods, & haunted me out of Pope's Homer . .. The love of Pope's Homer threw me into Pope on one side, & into Greek on the other & into Latin as a help to Greek.' But along with her youthful 'fits of Pope', there were also fits of 'Byron — & Coleridge' (BC 7:353-54). Despite her description of Wordsworth as 'the king-poet of our times', Barrett thought Coleridge had 'an in tenser genius' (BC 6:28, 75). Her interest in Keats, Shelley and Blake came later. Her 1831-32 diary reveals her close reading of both Keats and Shelley, with particular admiration for Keats' Hyperion fragment (Diary 91, 102). Significantly, given her affiliation with 'masculine' Romantic traditions, she did not particularly like [58/59] Keats' romances — works that aroused his own unease because of their association with a 'feminine' poetic mode (Mellor 183). Many references to Keats and Shelley appear in her letters of the early 1840s, where a preference for Keats is discernible. Keats may have been a 'poet of the senses', but 'it is of the senses idealized', she observed to Browning (RB-EBB 1: 187). There is a human side to his 'fine genius' (BC 6: 113) that she finds wanting in Shelley, that 'high, & yet too low, elemental poet, who froze in cold glory between Heaven & earth' (BC 5:60). As for Blake, the Romantic poet least known in the early nineteenth century, Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson detect echoes of his Jerusalem in Barrett's letters of 1837 and 1841 (BC 3:219-21; 5:117-18); while her reading of Songs of Innocence in 1842 (BC 5:308) contributed to the imagery and the radicalism of 'The Cry of the Children' and 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' (Stone, 'Cursing', 160).
During the earlier years of her girlhood, Byron was clearly the Romantic poet who loomed largest on Barrett's horizon. In 'Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character' she wrote that 'at four' she 'first mounted Pegasus', and that in her eleventh year, when for '8 months' she thought of nothing but 'the am bition of gaining fame', she wrote her Homeric epic in the style of Pope, The Battle of Marathon (BC 1:349-5 1). But if the form of this epic imitation is after Pope, its 'spirit ... is chiefly Byronic' (Borg 61) . Since Byron is the only major Romantic poet for whom Pope remained an important influence, this conjunction is less odd than it appears. Byron is the first poet Barrett mentions among her contemporaries in the 'Preface' to The Battle of Marathon, where she affirms that 'Poetry is the parent of liberty' (CW 1 :9). Literary histories have often told the story of the grief-stricken [60/61] fourteen-year-old Tennyson who, hearing of Byron's death in the Greek war of liberation in 1824, rushed out of doors and wrote on a piece of sandstone, 'Byron is dead'.6 But the eighteen-year-old Barrett's publication the same year of 'Stanzas on the Death of Lord Byron' has been forgotten.
Barrett's first two poems to be published in a periodical — two poems on Greek liberation accepted by the New Monthly Magazine in 1821 (Barnes 91) - also reflect the impact of Byron's Romantic Hellenism. Mermin suggests that Barrett identified so strongly with Greece as a 'damsel in distress' both in The Battle of Marathon and in her poems on Greek liberation because she could find no individual heroic women to identify with. Hence her 'imaginative identification is political and impersonal', contributing to her 'lifelong habit of associating geography with gender and imagining England as male and Greece and Italy ... as female' (23-27). But the gendering of Barrett Browning's geography was also significantly shaped by de Stael's Corinne, while her youthful Hellenism derives as much from the ardent political Republicanism she associated with Byron as from her identification with Greece as a 'damsel in distress'.
Nevertheless, as Mermin suggests, Barrett is clearly seeking heroic female figures to identify with in The Battle of Marathon — figures she may also have found in Byron's representations of active, assertive heroines. Thus she presents Athens as the 'one little city rising undaunted, and daring her innumerable enemies, in defence of her freedom' (CW 1:6). She also focuses on the goddess Minerva — 'in her hand her father's lightnings shone' (1.1027) — much as in her earliest poems she focuses on potent female goddesses generally, Aurora most conspicuous among them (HUP ll:81, 86, 91 ,97). Minerva inspires the hero Aristides: [60/61] his mind 'with all Minerva glows' (l.778). Indeed, the bloody, bone-crunching battle 'mid seas of gore' (1.1279) that Barrett so zestfully depicts often seems to be a struggle between two mighty goddesses, Minerva and Venus, rather than Greek and Persian heroes. Likewise, the Athenian matron whom Barrett introduces to rally on the troops conventionally weeps but nevertheless speaks up when all the Athenian men are 'by despair deprest' (l.709). 'The mother wept, but 'twas the Patriot spoke' (l.746), Barrett writes, passing over the conflict she so movingly explored near the end of her life in 'Mother and Poet'.
The Byronic Hellenism and the republican spirit of The Battle of Marathon are also conspicuous in An Essay on Mind, published when Barrett was twenty. Addressing 'Graecia' with 'feelings wild' as 'My other countrycountry of my soul!', she elegizes Byron as 'The pilgrim bard, who lived, and died for thee' (ll.1144-7,1 191). The form of An Essay on Mind is modelled on Pope's verse essays, while its survey of analogies for 'the operations of the mind' (CW 1:57) further reflects eighteenth-century influences in the allusions to 'metaphysicians' like Locke, Descartes, Buffon, Leibnitz, Berkeley, and Condillac. But in its numerous references to Byron, 'the Mont Blanc of intellect' (1.70), in its manner of turning 'the pow'rs of thinking back on thought' (1.201), and in its high claims for Poetry rather than Philosophy as Mind's greatest creation, An Essay on Mind is more Romantic in spirit than The Battle of Marathon. Barrett Browning later dismissed both works because they exhibited the 'imitative faculty' typical of youthful poetic aspiration: as she puts it in Aurora Leigh, how strange it is that 'nearly all young poets should write old' (Book 1: 1012). But she described her Essay on Mind as 'imitative in its form', yet 'not without traces of an [61/62] individual thinking & feeling — the bird pecks through the shell in it' (BC 7:354).
Barrett begins by considering 'th' unequal pow'rs, the various forms of Mind'. Why did 'Homer sing', why 'do I not the muse of Homer call', why is it not true that 'Tom Paine argued in the throne's defence' or that 'Byron nonsense wrote'? she asks, with negative constructions that emphasize her anxieties about her own powers (11.29-40). Then she surveys 'the various stages of life in which genius appears' and the diverse 'elements of Mind', before treating the 'creations of Mind' — Philosophy and Poetry (CW 1:246). In her 'Preface' to The Battle of Marathon, Barrett had happily assumed that the primacy of Poetry had not been denied 'in any age, or by any philosopher' (CW I) . But in the 'Preface' to An Essay on Mind, she vigorously counters the long tradition of such denials in Plato, Newton, Locke and Boileau, invoking Byron to support her claim that '"ethical poetry" , is '"the highest", poetical form and stressing the 'inspiritings to political feeling' poetry provides. 'Poetry is the enthusiasm of the understanding; and, as Milton finely expresses it, there is a "high reason in her fancies" " she concludes in a peroration reminiscent of Wordsworth's description of poetry in the 'Preface' to the Lyrical Ballads as the 'breath and finer spirit of all knowledge', the 'impassioned expression' of Science (CW 1:56-7).
In Barrett's consideration of the 'various forms of Mind' in An Essay on Mind, we can see an indirect exploration of a question she never directly addresses in this relentlessly male-centred text. How does gender influence the manifestations and development of genius? Barrett opens her poem by observing that since the Creation when 'dust' first 'weigh'd Genius down', 'The ambitious soul her essence hath defin'd, / [62/63] And Mind hath eulogiz'd the pow'rs of Mind' (11.3-6). But when the 'ambitious soul' is weighed down by the 'dust' of a female body in a literary culture that tropes poetic identity as male, the quest for self-creation is inevitably conflicted. At the age of eleven, Barrett had confidently stated in the 'Preface' to The Battle of Marathon, 'Now, even the female may drive her Pegasus through the realms of Parnassus, without being saluted with the most equivocal of all appellations, a learned lady' (CW 1:2). By the time of An Essay on Mind, published when she was twenty, she was much less confident that 'the female' writer could escape an 'equivocal' reception, and more careful to conceal her own sex: nothing in this work reveals that it is written by a very learned young lady. As for the 'ambitious soul' eulogizing her own powers, her 'essence' is given a ghastly disembodiment in 'The Vision of Fame' that concluded Barrett's 1826 volume. Appearing first as a 'bright and lofty' regal woman, with a 'brow of peerless majesty', the Fame Barrett envisions sings a seductive 'chant' of 'Th'e worth oj praise' that is not addressed to her. Then the visionary woman fades into a paler shade of pale as 'the flesh curled up from her bones / Like to a blasted scroll' and 'dropped away'. Yet 'still the vacant sockets gleamed / With supernatural fires' (CW 1:119-21).
The conflicts between Barrett's gender and her 'ambitious soul' are also strikingly apparent in 'The Development of Genius', a poem she worked on for several months in 1826-27 only to have it harshly condemned by her father as 'insufferable' in its 'egotism', 'most wretched', and 'beyond [her] grasp', after he had read less than half of it (BC 1:359). Part of this poem was published after her death as 'The Poet's Enchiridion'; part of it appeared as 'Earth' in her 1833 volume, as Mermin notes (42); while a third part [63/64] appeared in the 1838 poem 'The Student'. Revealingly, in 'The Student' Barrett turns to a form akin to the dramatic monologue to conceal her intense struggles with 'Ambition, idol of the intellect':'
"Yet, must my brow be paler! I have vowed
To clip it with the crown which cannot fade
When it is faded" [ll.11-13]
'The Development of Genius as it is pieced together by H. Buxton Forman (HUP 2:99-133) is an inchoate text struggling to be born, more intensely Romantic than anything Barrett had yet written. Like Byron's protagonists and Wordsworth in The Prelude, her protagonist Theon 'unbare[s], his heart (1.l02) and traces the growth of his mind — in the place of the young woman poet who, unlike Aurora Leigh, could not yet write her own 'Prelude'. Like the Byronic hero, Theon is restless, alienated ('loved of none'), and cursed by a black des tiny and blacker memories (11.l00-12). Like Wordsworth, Theon invokes the wind as a 'correspondent breeze', so that his voice might be 'chainless' as the wind and 'out-bear / Power, and a mountain freedom everywhere' (1.105). Like Shelley and the poet he describes in Alastor, Barrett's poet seeks truth and the seeds of fame in the charnel house of history until the bones of the dead stand up 'with a shout, in living crowds' (1.109) — suggestive of the dead peers that ring Browning's Childe Roland when he arrives at his dark tower. Like Blake, who in 'Auguries of Innocence' invokes a poetic sensibility so intense that a 'fibre of the brain' is torn by the outcry of a wounded hare, Barrett imagines a consciousness so sensitive that it can hear 'the grasses sprouting up' , 'the deep rush of springs / Fathoms beneath the sea', 'the blind mole creeping', 'the cracking of worn cerement / In distant grave' — each with 'a separate curious torture' 'gathered in the [64/65] chambers' of the ear to 'agonize its sense' (11.121-2). If such a mind 'could hear the thousand wheels that roll / Urging and urged within a single soul', thunder would seem 'silence to th'imagined sound' (11.122-3), Barrett writes, in a passage anticipating the 1844 sonnet 'The Soul's Expression'.
'The Soul's Expression' was published as the lead sonnet in both the 1844 Poems and subsequent editions of Barrett Browning's poetry. As such, it was clearly intended to articulate a key aspect of her artistic philosophy. In this sonnet as in 'The Development of Genius' she alludes to ' the dread apocalypse of soul' that would occur, 'as the thunder-roll / Breaks its own cloud', if she ever could utter fully the infinite depths and reaches of her own consciousn ess (CW 2:227). Ironically, the opening lines of the sonnet — 'With stammering lips and insufficient sound / I strive and struggle ... ' — have often been cited by critics who emphasize Barrett Browning's incomplete command of her own craft. But such applications ignore the sonnet's principal subject: its articulation of the Romantic philosophy of infinite aspiration. This is a philosophy that Barrett Browning retained throughout her career and shared with Browning and John Ruskin, among others . All three believed that the highest art is necessarily imperfect because the great artist strives until the point of failure is reached. In other words, in the greatest art the sound is always 'insufficient', as Barrett Browning implied in using the sonnet 'Insufficiency' to conclude the series of sonnets published in her 1844 Poems. Indeed, if she ever did 'utter all [her ]self into the air', Barrett writes in 'The Soul 's Expression', her 'flesh would perish there' on the 'dark edges of the sensual ground'.
The 'dread apocalypse of soul' alluded to in 'The Soul's Expression' was also the subject of a projected [65/66] lyrical drama Barrett planned to write with Horne in 1841, 'Psyche Apocalypte'. '[T]he awe of this soulconsciousness breaking into occasional lurid heats through the chasms of our conventionalities has struck me, in my own self-observation, as a mystery of nature very grand in itself, she wrote to Horne (LRHH 2:62). Although sketches and fragmentary portions of this lyrical drama were produced by Horne and Barrett, the collaboration never resulted in a finished work. Like 'The Development of Genius' and so many other Romantic poems, it remained a fragment.
The quenchless ambition and the 'apocalypse of soul' that figure so prominently in Barrett's published and unpublished works from 1826 to 1844 reveal how much she shared the male Romantic drive for transcendence most famously embodied in Wordsworth's apocalyptic revelation while crossing the Alps in Book 6 of The Prelude. Like the male Romantics as Marlon Ross describes them, Barrett was 'driven to a quest for self-creation, for self-comprehension, for self-positioning . .. unprecedented in literature'; and hke them, she turned to masculine metaphors of quest, conquest, and power.7 If, as Ross observes, 'Wordsworth's favorite laudatory term is "power" it also is one of Barrett's favourite terms. In 1845 she told the critic Henry Chorley, 'I have that admiration for genius which dear Mr. Kenyon calls my "immoral sympathy with power"'. Significantly, the comment was provoked by her praise of George Sand as 'the first female genius of any country or age' (LEBB 1 :233). But in her earlier works, the example of George Sand was not yet available and she was less certain of her own power.
Moreover, the very sublime imagery that the young Barrett turned to in representing the mind's power was inflected by paradigms that excluded her female [66/67] experience. Christine Battersby notes that the sublime and its associated images were 'often explicitly, and nearly always implicitly, gendered as male' in Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Whereas the sublime 'is exemplified by kings and commanders discharging their terrible strength ... as well as by the grandeur of the Alps', the beautiful — 'small, smooth, delicate and graceful' — is exemplified by the female body (74). Mellor points out that Romantic women writers developed a number of complex strategies for revising or 'domesticating' the Burkean sublime, either by displacing it into the domestic sphere in Gothic romances, or by transforming its focus on solitary transcendence into an experience of communion with others (94-97).
One of Barrett's own strategies for dealing with the conflicts created by masculine tropes of the sublime is illustrated by 'A Sea-side Meditation', a poem included in her 1833 volume, Prometheus Bound . .. and Miscellaneous Poems. 'A Sea-side Meditation' strikingly differs from the later, similarly titled descriptive-meditative lyric, 'A Sea-Side Walk' (1838). In the later poem, Barrett chiefly employs graceful images of the beautiful to describe the human mind and nature interfused in a manner recalling the Romantic conversation poems - particularly 'Tintern Abbey'(commentary and text) — and anticipating subsequent works in the same tradition, like Wallace Stevens' 'The Idea of Order at Key West':
For though we never spoke
Of the grey water and the shaded rock,
Dark wave and stone unconsciously were fused
Into the plaintive 'speaking that we used ... [11.29-32] [67/68]
As its title suggests, however, the earlier 'A Sea-Side Meditation' focuses less on the interchange of the mmd and nature than on the power of the mind in meditation. Here Barrett conventionally defines the 'sublime' as all that 'doth force the mind to view the mind' in the 'awful likeness' of its own immortal power — the mountain's brow, 'the spanless plain', the deep's immensity ' (ll.76-97 ). Contemplating the sea in its varymg aspects, but insistently identifying it as male — 'Like a spent warrior hanging in the sun / His glittering arms' (ll.103-4), 'Swinging the grandeur of his foamy strength' (1.24) — she dares to find in the ocean's 'vast similitude' a symbol of her own soul's depths, musings, 'secrets of decay' and 'elemental strength: (ll.119-26). This identification is accomphshed wIthout the ma le impersonation so often found in other works from this period as she invokes the liberating example of the Athenian who 'Unchain'd the prison'd music of his lips 'By shouting to the billows, sound for sound' (11.29-30).
Barrett's 'vast similitude' for her own soul leads her to Promethean speculations on the 'power' that 'knowledge' brings, in the process revealing her fascination with the Titanic figure of Milton's Satan. If human dreams were not mortal, if 'thought's free wheels' could 'oversweep the heights of wisdom I And invade her depths', we should ' be like gods' (ll.1 26-36). But 'Mind struggles vainly from flesh', and its 'Babel' constructions will tumble down even as 'Hell's angel' in the apocalypse will 'confirm his rebel heart, I Shoot his strong wings, and darken pole to pole', and 'shake I The fever'd clouds, as if a thousand storms I Throbb'd into life': only to be to be hurled back by God (11.126-50). Mermin finds in 'A Sea-Side Meditation' the 'dynamics of renunciation and submission' that pervades Barrett's earlier works (54) . This dynamic [68/69] does structure the dark poem preceding 'A Sea-Side Meditation' in 1833, 'The Tempest', in which the protagonist's heart is torn by a battle between 'sympathy with power, I And stooping unto power; - the energy I And passiveness, — the thunder and the death! ' (11.115-17). But in Barrett's unchaining of her 'sea-side' meditation , there is little hint of submission. Defiant power meets a greater power and is crushed in the closing epic simile of Satan's apocalyptic reb ~llion throbbing 'into life'. If, as a contemporary reVIewer noted, 'The T empest' is notable for its 'Byronic energy' (Be 4:394), 'A Sea-side Meditation' is even more Byronic in its evocation of Satan as a Promethean over-reacher.
'A Sea-Side Meditation' suggests why Barrett was drawn to Prometheus Bound, among the many Greek works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and other writers that she read intensively with Boyd in the early 1830s (Diary 43; HUP 2:134-5). Like Goethe and Byron, she admired the rebellious defiance of Prometheus, so akin to that of Milton's Satan. At the same time, like Shelley, she found in Prometheus a hero free of many of Satan's defects. Prometheus Bound also contains a complete repertoire of the imagery of the sublime that she deploys in 'A Sea-Side Meditation' and 'The Tempest', imagery that her immersion in the Romantics led her to prefer. Lightning, thunder, tempestuous wind, the unchained sea, volcanic eruption and alpine crags: all appear in Aeschylus great lyrical drama. Furthermore, in Aeschylus she encountered this imagery accompanied by other characteristics supporting her view that the Greeks were not classical but romantic writers.
Barrett's first translation of Prometheus Bound, undertaken in the first two weeks of February in 1832, is in some respects an 'astonishing feat', as Alice Falk notes [69/70] in her illuminating comparison of this and the later translation carried out in 1845, and published in 1850. 'In a fortnight', the twenty-six-year-old with no university training 'made a reasonably accurate, readable, almost line-for-line verse translation of the least easily translated Greek tragedian' (72). 'Aeschylus presents difficulties to the manliest Greek scholar', a reviewer observed in 1838, in paying his 'esteem' to Barrett: 'think of these rugged obstacles to a woman's mind!' (BC 4:390). But other reviewers did not esteem Barrett's translation, and she herself soon came to condemn it harshly as 'cold stiff & meagre, unfaithful to the genius if servile to the letter of the great poet', 'a Prometheus twice bound' (BC 5:297, 26). 'She was pained not at the lack of scholarship but at the lack of poetry', as Falk puts it (74). Thus she undertook in her second translation a much less literal version — in keeping with the Romantic theory of translation she advanced in the 'Preface' to her first version, but did not carry into practice (CW 6:81-2).
The final speech of Prometheus in the second, freer translation illustrates the imagery of the sublime that Aeschylus employs in the play, increasing its appeal for the Romantics:
Ay! in act now, in word now no more,
Earth is rocking in space.
And the thunders crash up with a roar upon roar,
And the eddying lightnings flash fire in my face,
And the whirlwinds are whirling the dust round and round,
And the blasts of the winds universal leap free
And blow each upon each with a passion of sound,
And aether goes mingling in storm with the sea.
Such a curse on my head, in a manifest dread, [70/71]
From the hand of your Zeus has been hurtled along.
O my mother's fair glory! O Aether, enringing
All eyes with the sweet common light of thy bringing!
Dost thou see how I suffer this wrong?
Although the leading Victorian critic H. Buxton Forman described these lines as a 'magnificent rendering' of a 'magnificent work' (182), Barrett Browning's classical knowledge was faulted in the anti-Romantic movement of early Modern literature. In Percy Lubbock's words, 'She never understood that deliberate aim at attainable perfection which is at the heart of Greek literature. Hers was the romantic temper, never content with attainment' (11).
Such assertions ignore the characteristically Romantic redefinition of the classical Barrett advanced in the 'Preface' to her 1833 translation of Prometheus Bound. In effect, she redefines classical poets like . Aeschylus as romantic. Our 'age would not be "classical." "O, that profaned name!" ... It does not mean what it is made to mean: it does not mean what is necessarily regular, and polished, and unimpassioned. The ancients, especially the ancient Greeks, felt, and thought, and wrote antecedently to rules: they felt passionately, and thought daringly.' In her view, Aeschylus is a representative classical writer because he is 'a fearless and impetuous, not a cautious and accomplished poet' whose chief excellences cannot be 'acquired by art': 'a vehement imaginativeness, a strong but repressed sensibility' and a powerfully metaphoric language, sometimes writhing 'beneath its impetuosity' (CW 6:83-4). Like her Romantic precursors, then, Barrett found something else 'at the heart of Greek literature' than the 'attainable perfection' [71/72] Lubbock privileges, a feature she attributed in 'The Greek Christian Poets' to the 'cold and lifeless' Latin poets rather than to the 'good , fervid, faulty Greeks' (CW6:175 ).
Most of all, Barrett found in Greek literature the Titan Prometheus, 'the Romantic hero, on a superhuman scale' — exhibiting the 'authadia' or 'insolent, self-will' that some reviewers detected in her own character (Falk 73--4). As Mermin (51), Cooper (26) and Falk all point out, Prometheus held a particular attraction for Barrett because he combined heroic defiance with the conventionally female attributes of confinement, physical passivity, and self-sacrifice. Joining the 'redemptive self-denial of Christ' with 'Promethean self-will', she 'made a Christ who could be unbound and triumph without dying, a Prometheus with whom she could safely identify' (Falk 82).
Barrett's 'Preface' to her 1833 volume points the way to this fusion of Christ and Prometheus in the systematic contrast she develops between Satan and Prometheus, analogous to Shelley's differentiation of the two figures in the 'Preface' to Prometheus Unbound. Aeschylus' Prometheus is 'one of the most original, and grand, and attaching characters ever conceived by the mind of man', she observes. 'That conception sank deeply into the soul of Milton, and ... rose from thence in the likeness of his Satan.' But one embodies 'the sublime of sin' and the other 'the sublime of virtue. Satan suffered from his ambition; Prometheus from his humanity: Satan for himself; Prometheus for mankind: Satan da red perils which he had not weighed; Prometheus devoted himself to sorrows which he had foreknown. "Better to rule in hell," said Satan; "Better to serve this rock," said Prometheus' (CW 6:85).
The contrast between Prometheus and Satan [72/73] developed by Barrett in 1833 gave rise to the lead poem in her 1838 collection, The Seraphim, and Other Poems, the volume that marks her entry into the second and third phases of poetic incarnation as Bloom describes them: competition with precursors and the rise of individual inspiration. In the 'Preface' to the 1838 volume, she explains how the subject of The Seraphim — the 'supreme spectacle' of the Crucifixion as it appears 'dilated in seraphic eyes' — 'suggested itself to her while translating Prometheus Bound:
I thought, that had Aeschylus lived after the incarnation ... he might have turned .. . from the glorying of him who gloried that he could not die, to the sublimer meekness of the Taster of death for every man; from the taunt stung into being by the torment, to HIS more awful silence, when the agony stood dumb before the love! And I thought, how, 'from the height of this great argument,' the scenery of the Prometheus would have dwarfed itself even in the eyes of its poet ... H e would have turned . . . to the Victim, whose sustaining thought beneath an unexampled agony was not the Titanic 'I can revenge,' but the celestial 'I can forgive!' (CW 1 :164-5).
Barrett conceals her competitive ambition by suggesting that she is only writing what Aeschylus might have written after the Christian dispensation, and by emphasizing her 'imperfect knowledge' . But she implicitly appropriates Aeschylus' achievement and invites comparison with him in saying of her 1833 and 1838 volumes, 'The subjects of my two books lie side by side'. As she acknowledged in the same letter in which she refers to ambition as a 'grand angelic sin', the subject of The Seraphim was a 'very daring' one (BC 4:15). [73/74]
Although Cooper suggests that 'Barrett did not attempt a Shelleyean revision of the Prometheus myth' (15), The Seraphim presents striking parallels with Shelley's much more successful transformation of Aeschylus' great drama in Prometheus Unbound. Mermin aptly describes The Seraphim as a 'Prometheus Bound without Prometheus: a lyrical dramatization not of suffering and acting, but of watching others suffer and act. The chorus ... becomes the protagonist' in Barrett's depiction of two seraphim, Ador the Strong and Zerah the Bright One, as they observe the crucifixion (62). In Prometheus Unbound, 'watching others suffer and act' is similarly dramatized, as Prometheus himself triumphs through love, while Asia and various mythological beings — Earth, Ocean, the Spirits of the Hours, for instance — enact the role of the chorus in classical drama, an important prototype for Shelley as well as for Barrett. Just as Shelley departs from Aeschylus in emphasizing the curse that afflicts Earth along with Prometheus, Barrett focuses on the common curse afflicting Adam and Earth. Both writers also depict Earth's transformation by the renovating power of love felt in its darkest depths (ll.970-84 in The Seraphim and Act III, scene iii in Prometheus Unbound). Even the imagery and rhymes of The Seraphim seem very much like Shelley's on occasion, perhaps reflecting the common influence of Dante: Ador's 'burning eyes .. . wild and mournful as a star' (11.324-25) are suggestive of Panthea's 'eyes which burn ... Like stars half quenched in mists' in Prometheus Unbound, for instance. Little wonder that contemporary reviewers of The Seraphim often compared Barrett to Shelley (BC 4:383, 400, 409); or that Browning selected an epigraph from Shelley to precede the discussion of her works in Richard Hengist Horne's A New Spirit of the Age (BC 8:204). In [74/75] a subtle reading of the pervasive references to Prometheus Bound in the correspondence between Barrett and Browning, Yopie Prins has shown how the two poets 'alternate in playing the part of Prometheus' and carry out their 'mutual seduction' through 'Aeschylus' text' (435, 437). But Shelley also entered into this complex intertextual exchange.
The resemblances between Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and The Seraphim are all the more interesting given that Barrett may not have been familiar with Shelley's greatest work when she wrote The Seraphim and when she differentiated Prometheus from Satan in the 'Preface' to her 1833 translation of Aeschylus. Barrett mentions reading Queen Mab and 'Adonais' in 1831 (Diary 138), but there is no reference to Prometheus Unbound in her correspondence before 1845, when Browning urged her to '[restore' the lost drama of Prometheus the Fire-Bearer 'as Shelley did' the Prometheus Unbound (RB-EBB 1:37). As Shelley emphasized in his 'Preface', however, he was not interested in restoring the lost drama of Aeschylus, but in using the character of Prometheus to develop his own aesthetic and moral ends. Barrett's substitution of Christ's 'I can forgive' for the rebellious 'I can revenge' of Prometheus reflects a similar revisionary impulse.
The prominence Barrett gives to Christian cosmology marks one important difference between the Promethean revisionism of Prometheus Unbound and The Seraphim. As Linda Lewis has noted, Shelley's Prometheus incorporates 'the sublimeness of the perfect self-knowledge of the crucified Christ' (57), but 'the salvation of mankind is not envisioned in Christian terms' (162) in Prometheus Unbound.9 When Barrett was given a copy of Shelley's Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments in 1840, she deleted the hostile [75/76] remarks concerning Christianity, inserting her own views instead (Thorpe). Elsewhere, she criticized Shelley for failing to aspire to 'communion with ... the heart of the God-Man' Christ, and for 'failing to keep near enough to Humanity' (BC 5:60; 6:243). The 'God-Man's' human agony is at the heart of The Seraphim:
The pathos hath the day undone
The death-look of His eyes
Hath overcome the sun
And made it sicken in its narrow skies. [11.863-66]
Fusing the conventions of the Christian mystery play with those of Greek tragedy, Barrett concludes by focusing on Heaven, not Earth. Prometheus Unbound, on the contrary, blends Greek tragedy with the secular forms of opera and dance in its final vision of millenial cosmic renovation, as Ronald Tetreault has shown (172).
Unbound reflect the stage of Romantic Prometheanism described by Lewis in which the defiant Satanic firethief is replaced by 'the Prometheus who bestows divine light' (192). Lewis alternatively speculates that Barrett Browning's works, like those of other nineteenth-century women writers, may reflect a still later stage of Romantic Prometheanism in which the tradition died out because 'Prometheanism/Titanism was stolen and modified by' female authors who effectively emasculated the myth (194). The phenomenon Lewis describes as emasculation might have been conceptualized very differently by the women writers involved, the Brontës among them. That aside, however, Barrett Browning's works up to 1844 playa larger and more complicated role in the unfolding of Romantic Prometheanism than literary histories [76/77] suggest. The response to her 1833 and 1838 volumes alone supports this possibility, since reviewers repeatedly cited and praised the comments on Prometheus in her two 'Prefaces' (BC 4:373, 376; 6:375).
A Drama of Exile, the most ambitious of Barrett's 1844 works, reflects her increasingly overt engagement with two powerful precursors more immediate than Aeschylus: Milton and Byron. Her revisionary struggle with Paradise Lost in A Drama of Exile is most apparent in her representation of Eve and of Lucifer. In both cases, her rewriting of Milton is filtered through her equally complex response to Byron's subversive metaphysical drama Cain, a work that she alternately imitates and revises.
Much as Byron de-centres Milton's focus on Adam's and God's perspective in Paradise Lost by focusing on Cain's experience after the fall, Barrett de-centres Milton by explicitly focusing on Eve after the expulsion from Eden. In an 1843 letter to Horne, she explained that the 'object' of A Drama of Exile was 'the development of the peculiar anguish of Eve — the fate of woman at its root'. Reiterating this point, she added, 'The principal interest is set on Eve — the "first in the transgression." First in the transgression has been said over & over again, because of the tradition, — but first & deepest in the sorrow, nobody seems to have said, or, at least, written of (BC 8:117). In the 'Preface' itself, Barrett is more circumspect: 'My subject was the new and strange experience of the fallen humanity, as it went forth from Paradise into the wilderness; with a peculiar reference to Eve's alloted grief (CW 2:143). The private letter more frankly reveals not only her explicitly revisionary concern with Eve, but also the weight of the 'tradition' she saw herself writing against. [77/78]
The force of the tradition is evident in the fact that Barrett herself apparently began treating the Miltonic matter of A Drama of Exile from Adam's perspective, not Eve's. This is suggested by 'Adam's farewell to Eden — in his age', a manuscript now in the Armstrong Browning Library. It is not clear how this manuscript relates to the germ of A Drama of Exile, which Barrett first referred to in 1841 under the manuscript title 'A day from Eden' (BC 5: 146). But it is clear that the 168-line fragment 'Adam's farewell' is focused on Adam's experience after the expulsion from Eden. In lamenting the loss of Eden in his old age, Adam repeatedly speaks of 'I' and 'we', but Eve is not otherwise alluded to. In revising the poem, Barrett made the opening more like a dramatic monologue — one of the many Victorian dramatic monologues, including her own, that portray dying, solitary speakers. But these revisions simply intensifed the focus on Adam.
In the much more ambitious and gynocentic work that Barrett finally produced, she invited comparison with Milton's epic aspirations even as she powerfully expressed the sense of trespass that Bloom finds in all poets after the 1740s who emulate Paradise Lost, Blake, Wordsworth and Byron among them. Ingeniously justifying this trespass in her 'Preface', she first suggests that Eve's experience of the Fall has been 'imperfectly apprehended hitherto' and that it is 'more expressible by a woman than a man', then recoils into 'anxiety of authorship' :
I had promised my own prudence to shut close the gates of Eden between Milton and myself, so that none might say I dared to walk in his footsteps. He should be within, I thought, with his Adam and Eve unfallen or falling, — and I, without, with my [78/79] EXILES, — I also an exile! It would not do. The subject, and his glory covering it, swept through the gates, and I stood full in it, against my will, and contrary to my vow, — till I shrank back fearing, almost desponding .. . [CW 2: 144]
In keeping with her construction of Barrett Browning Deirdre David suggests that the poet 'is made twice passive' in this passage, 'by Milton and by God' (Intellectual Women 108). But as Barrett acknowledged in the 'Preface' to her 1838 volume, 'The disparaging speeches of prefaces are not proverbial for their real humility' (CW I: I 70). Certainly her apparently humble genuflection to Milton's greatness bears out the truth of her comment. She 'stood full' in Milton's glory (as opposed to 'trembled beneath' or some such phrase) is a nicely ambiguous statement. Barrett also boldly justifies her endeavour by an appeal to precedent — 'I have only attempted, in respect to Milton, what the Greek dramatists achieved lawfully in respect to Homer' — and further implies that it is no trespass at all on Milton's ground, since Milton's subject 'was his by illustration only': 'Andreini's mystery suggested Milton's epic (145-46). Most revealingly, as Cooper astutely observes, Barrett manifests her 'usurpation' of masculine poetic power in the description of her 'pleasure in driving in, like a pile, stroke upon stroke, the Idea of EXILE' that dominates her drama (60).
Feminist critics have tended to assume that Barrett's Eve was created to counter Milton's and that Barrett was oppressed like Virginia Woolf by 'Milton's bogie'. Yet her relationship with Milton may well be more complex than such a formulation suggests. Joseph Wittreich's Feminist Milton indicates that many women readers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century [79/80] perceived Milton not as an arch-misogynist, but as their ally in the defence of women's rights and powers. Reading Paradise Lost as 'a text that deconstructs the traditions it summons' (42-43, 66), these eighteenth-century and Romantic interpreters found in Eve evidence for woman's dignity, reasoning powers, and equality with man before the fall.
Whether Barrett found in Milton a progenitor or an oppressor, or more probably a combination of both, in A Drama of Exile she intensified some of the more subversive characteristics of his Eve. Thus, the vision of the redemption to come through Eve and the 'Promised Seed 'that Milton's Eve only dreams about in Book 12 of Paradise Lost (ll.606-23) is presented to both Eve and Adam by Christ 'in a vision' in Barrett's work. 'Henceforth in my name I take courage, O thou woman, — man, take hope', Christ says, addressing the woman first: 'a new Eden-gate I Shall open on a hinge of harmony I And let you through to mercy' (11.1986-92). Whereas Adam gently rebukes Eve after her lament for the loss of Eden in Book 11 of Paradise Lost (11.287-92), Barrett's Eve more often gently corrects her Adam, speaking as a peacemaker between humanity and the Earth Spirits (ll.1176-81) , and appealing to God's pity in an implicit correction of Adam's appeal to God's power (ll.1745-47). Barrett's Adam stands 'upright' after the fall because he has Eve (1.490). Finally, while Milton depicts Adam and Eve departing from Paradise together, Barrett depicts Eve first prostrate in guilt and sorrow, then renewed in strength by Adam's love so that she asserts, 'I will be first to tread from this sword-glare / Into the outer darkness . .. And thus I do it' (ll.547-49).
These features in A Drama of Exile call in question Cooper's suggestion that Eve is 'depicted as an acquiescent woman' (124) and Harrison's conclusion [80/81] that Barrett's revision of Milton is relatively limited because 'the male characters — Adam, Christ, and Lucifer himself — are the centers of rhetorical power and dominance in this poem', which ultimately serves 'to confirm and reinforce the Victorian domestic ideology' (129). Granted, Adam defines Eve's womanly function in conventional Victorian terms, but Eve's words and actions do not always conform to his assumptions about domestic relations. Moreover, neither the length of the speeches given to Eve nor the response of contemporary reviewers bears out Harrison's claim that the male characters dominate A Drama of Exile. Lucifer is given the longest single speech in the drama (90 lines), but Eve comes in second with a speech of 76 lines; Adam and Christ come in third and fourth with speeches of 59 and 54 lines respectively. Eve also speaks repeatedly about speaking: 'shall I speak ... Shall I speak humbly now who once was proud?' she rhetorically asks before launching into her longest speech. Before Adam can say 'Speak as thou wilt', she argues that she has the right to speak because she is 'schooled by sin to more humility' than Adam (1l.1179-83). After the more explicit feminism of Aurora Leigh had alerted critics to the subversiveness of A Drama of Exile, a reviewer denounced its Eve for 'talking at an amazing rate. Adam can scarcely slip in a word edgewise'.12 Actually Barrett gives Eve and Adam relatively equal air-time, but some Victorian men could not conceive of Eve having anything of value to say. The Blackwood's reviewer objected to Barrett's focus on 'Eve's grief as distinguished from Adam's', because it is too trivial a subject 'to sustain the weight of a dramatic poem. At the most, it might have furnished materials for a sonnet. . . . She has tried to make bricks not only without straw, but almost without clay', the reviewer [81/82] asserts, implying that the mother of mankind in herself is almost a non-entity (BC 9:357).
Barrett in 1844 clearly had another vision of Eve in mind, one revealing the legacy of Byron and the younger Romantics, and anticipating Charlotte Brontë's famous evocation in Shirley of an Eve who was a 'woman-Titan', the mother of Prometheus (315). Like Thea in Keats' Hyperion or Asia in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, the Titanic primeval female figures Byron created in his metaphysical dramas Cain and Heaven and Earth are anything but non-entities. Truman Steffan rightly points out that Byron's Eve in Cain reflects a misogynist element in his thinking, evident both in the reproaches cast upon her by Adam, Adah, Lucifer, and Cain, and in the ugly curses she herself heaps on her son. But more recent criticism has also noted the liberating elements in Byron's dynamic and autonomous female characters.14 Like the daughters of Cain in Heaven and Earth who call down the seraphs to be their mates, Cain's sister-bride Adah counters Byron's apparently misogynist representation of Eve in Cain, even though she remains secondary in importance.
Cain was praised by Barrett in her 1824-26 notebook when the controversy over this 'blasphemous' text was still intense. But in portraying Eve and Lucifer many years later she registers her resistance to Byron as well as her emulation of his revisionism. Most notably, she echoes Cain in A Drama of Exile when Adam threatens to curse Lucifer and he responds, 'Curse freely!', insinuating that Eve 'could curse too — as a woman may — / Smooth in the vowels' (11.652-65) . In place of Byron's bitterly cursing Eve, however, Barrett presents an Eve who grieves rather than curses, and who is Adam's superior in her demonstration of loving forgiv eness. As I have shown elsewhere, Eve is never a [82/83] curser in this drama that might well have been entitled 'A Drama of Curses' , since curses and cursing are mentioned 36 times ('Cursing', 158) . Eve is not an angry domineering mother, but a sympathetic loving mate as Adah is to Cain. Whereas Byron swerves from Milton in focusing on the love of Cain and Adah, Barrett reverts to the focus on Adam and Eve, but she intensifies the conjugal relationship portrayed in Paradise Lost and makes Eve, not Adam or Cain, her primary subj ect. Thus she draws on Byron to revise Milton, at the same time significantly altering his representation of Eve in Cain.
A similarly complex pattern of revision is apparent in the representation of Lucifer in A Drama of Exile. Critics have noted how Byron departed from Milton in emphasizing Lucifer's fallen beauty and in associating him with the light-bearing Morning Star. But, although at least one contemporary reviewer rightly observed that Byron's Lucifer in Cain rather than Milton's Satan was Barrett's primary 'model' (BC 9:325), the intertextual connections between Byron's revisionism and Barrett's have never been considered. Barrett's Eve echoes Byron's Adah in emphasizing Lucifer's 'glorious darkness' (1.752), but Barrett goes further than Byron in creating sympathy for Lucifer by representing the Morning Star as his bereft consort in her 'Song of the Morning Star to Lucifer' (11.810-95). More importantly, Barrett revises Byron by portraying 'Lucifer as an extreme Adam', as she explained in her 'Preface' (CW 2:144), whereas Byron in effect portrays Cain as 'an extreme Adam' in whom the effects of the fall are fully manifested. Barrett's aim in making Lucifer himself the most exiled of her exiles is to bring out the power of 'Heavenly love'. In the process she humanizes him in an unorthodox and innovative manner, resisting Byron's emphasis on [83/84] Lucifer's incapacity to conceive of human or divine love.
None of Barrett Browning's contemporaries judged A Drama of Exile an unqualified success. But it is absolutely inaccurate to say as Alethea Hayter does that 'nobody liked A Drama of Exile' (78), or as Gardner Taplin does that, 'even to Elizabeth's staunchest supporters' it appeared a 'complete failure' (Life 126). It was praised by John Kenyon and John Ruskin, while the Athenaeum was representative of many reviewers in commenting that, while the work fell 'short of its own ideal', it contained 'enough of fine thought and imagination to furnish a hundred inferior but still beautiful conceptions.15 A Drama of Exile 'exhibits power such as we do not remember in any lady's poetry', another reviewer observed; while a third commended its Aeschylean 'mental energy and daring imagination' — 'the author of the "Prometheus" would have recognized the work of a kindred spirit in the "Drama of Exile", (BC 9:369,379).
On the whole, however, Victorian reviewers found more to praise in 'A Vision of Poets', the most substantial work in the 1844 Poems next to A Drama of Exile. 'A Vision of Poets' was greeted as 'the most remarkable poem' in the two volumes, 'a striking piece' more often 'beautiful and masterly' than not, and 'a very impressive performance' (BC 9:329,346, 359). This is 'no elegant amusement of the boudoir penned on satin paper', one reviewer commented; it is 'the soul's experience, wrung from the very depths of a noble nature' (BC 10:339). 'A Vision of Poets' remained a frequently cited poem until the end of the century, then lapsed into the obscurity that still affiicts it. Although Hayter describes it as 'the fullest expression of Mrs. Browning's idea of the poetical character' next to Aurora Leigh [84/85] (154), she mentions it only in passing, like Mermin and Cooper.
[85/86] Barrett strategically positioned 'A Vision of Poets' as the lead work in Volume 2 of her 1844 Poems, singling it out in her 'Preface' as a poem in which she 'endeavoured to indicate the necessary relations of genius to suffering' (CW 2: 147). 'Genius' in the context of the poem is synonymous with poetic power. What Barrett explores is the nexus of power, knowledge, and pain. She presents an anonymous 'pilgrim-poet' who experiences a vision initiating him into the knowledge of suffering that grounds poetical power and revealing the immortal fame such power may bring. The fame the aspiring poet longs for is embodied in his vision, when he sees the gathered company of great 'king-poets' of the past.
If The Seraphim reveals striking affinities with Shelley in its revision of Aeschylus, and A Drama of Exile manifests Barrett's revisionary engagement with Byron as well as Milton, 'A Vision of Poets' is her most Keatsian poem. But the work it most strikingly resembles is not Keats' Hyperion fragment, which Barrett read in 1831, or Endymion which she echoes in 'A Vision of Poets' itself, but The Fall of Hyperion, a work that Barrett probably did not know since it was not yet published in 1844. Some of the parallels may result from the influence of The Divine Comedy on bothpoets. For, if Barrett is walking in Milton's footsteps in A Drama of Exile, she is clearly walking in Dante's in 'A Vision of Poets'. The poem is written in 'a simplified form of the terza rima', as Oscar Kuhns notes, and it contains even more 'touches' of Dante than he points out (236-38). Nevertheless, the presence of many poets in addition to Dante is felt in this densely allusive work. While one reviewer rightly noted the 'altogether Dantean' nature of some of her expressions [85/86] another commented, 'you feel, as you proceed, that you are in the company of one to whom all the masters of the Greek, Latin, and Italian schools are familiar in the originals' (BC 10:340, 370).
Its invocation of powerful precursors and its central quest for poetic power make 'A Vision of Poets' the fullest and clearest embodiment of 'the scene of instruction' in Barrett Browning's canon. As much as Paracelsus which it sometimes echoes, it presents 'incidents in the development of the soul', to use Browning's famous words from the 'Preface' to Sordello. But rather than dramatizing historical figures and events as Browning does in Paracelsus and Sordello, Barrett follows Dante and the Romantics in internalizing the quest of traditional romance, making it a symbolic allegory of the poet's spiritual and imaginative growth.
'A Vision of Poets' opens with the description of a sleepless poet, arising to wander in 'the darkest glades / Where the moon had drawn long colonnades' (ll.7-8), and encountering there a mysterious queenly lady like Spenser's Una who identifies herself with the moon:
'She is in heaven, and I on earth;
This is my kingdom: I come forth
To crown all poets to their worth.' [ll.52-57]
When the poet sceptically questions the lady's claim that all poets are crowned 'to their worth', pointing to the example of Keats, the lady leads him out of the dark forest to a 'wild brown moorland' where, beneath the 'broader glory' of the moon, he sees 'four pools breaking up the heath / With white low gleamings, blank as death' (ll.114-26). The lady asks him to drink from each of these progressively more repulsive pools, the second, third and fourth representing 'World's use', 'World's love', and 'World's cruelty [86/87] respectively, the first unnamed. The symbolism associated with each of these pools is too complex to explore here. But the fourth, depicted with images as grotesquely animated as those in 'Childe Roland', suggests that 'A Vision of Poets' may have been one of the many texts influencing Browning's later depiction of a young knight's progression through an intensely symbolic and increasingly cruel landscape towards the 'dark tower' bringing a vision of his lost peers.
As Barrett's pilgrim-poet drinks from the last pool, 'His brain beat heart-like, rose and sank' (1.189) - implying that the painful knowledge of the world's cruelty has been felt on his pulses, head-knowing and heart-feeling fused. He then falls backward into the swoon that brings the vision at the heart of the poem. As the lady's kiss awakens him within his trance, he becomes aware of her standing beside him, 'holy, pale and high / As one who saw an ecstasy / Beyond a foretold agony' (ll.208-10) — like Keats' Moneta or Dante's Beatrice. Rising up at the lady's command, the initiate finds himself before an altar in a great church with Piranesi-like columns glimmering through an eddying mist of incense. Before the altar stands an angel whose eyes reflect the glory of God as Beatrice's do in The Divine Comedy; beside him stands a 'phantasm of an organ'. Ranged around both is a 'strange company ... pale and bound / With bay above the eyes profound'. With 'deathful' faces, they nevertheless radiate '[t]he power of life' (ll.271-75):
All, still as stone and yet intense;
As if by spirit's vehemence
That stone were carved and not by sense. [11.424-27]
As the moon-muse lady gradually reveals, this is the gathered company of 'God's prophets of the Beautiful' [87/88] them immortal fame.
In justifying the ways of her 'Poet-God' to man, Barrett presents a theodicy that provides for no transcendence of pain. The suffering of the king-poets continues after death. Eternal passion and eternal pain accompany eternal glory. All who aspire to join the ranks of the king-poets must offer up their hearts completely and accept a baptism in the salt and bitter tears of Christ, much as in Keats' The Fall of Hyperion Moneta states, 'None can usurp this height .. . But those to whom the miseries of the world I Are misery, and will not let them rest' (11.147-9) . 'Anguish bas instructed me in joy', Barrett said in one of her early letters to Browning (RB-EBB 1:35). The statement, which looks forward to Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, and back to Keats, reflects the conjunction at the heart of 'A Vision of Poets', where the poet-hero learns that 'not to suffer, is to want I The conscience of the jubilant' (11.515-16).
One of the most powerful passages in 'A Vision of Poets' is .the poetic catalogue in which Barrett summons up and sums up, in a few memorable lines for each, the most famous figures in the great company of dead poets — from Homer with his 'thunderous brows' to Keats and Shelley and Byron. This royal roll-call, including Greek, Latin,. Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English poets, was highly praised by Browning and often cited in contemporary reviews. 'How perfect, absolutely perfect', Browning exclaimed, 'are those three or four pages in the "Vision" which present the Poets — a line, a few words, and the man there, — one twang of the bow and the arrowhead in the white — Shelley's "white ideal all statue-blind" is perfect, - how can I coin words? . . . all, all are perfect, perfect!' (RB-EBB 1:142). [88/89]
Barrett Browning's style 'tends to be expansive rather than lapidary', as Mermin suggests (9). But in 'A Vision of Poets' she often achieves the concentrated effect she praised in Dante when she said of his poetry 'count me the drops congealed in one hailstone' (RB-EBB 1:52) . Thus she describes Sappho, the only woman in the company of 'king-poets', with her 'gloriole'
Of ebon hair on calmed brows —
O poet-woman! none forgoes
The leap, attaining the repose. [11.319-21]
Barrett's evocation of Sappho frames her passionate leap into the sea within the calm repose of her fame, thereby reversing the long tradition of focusing on Sappho's life rather than her art. Other memorable lines include the sketch of stern Lucretius, 'nobler than his mood, I Who dropped his plummet down the broad I Deep universe and said I "No God — " , (ll.334-7) , and 'grave Corneille I The orator of rhymes, whose wail I Scarce shook his purple' (ll. 363- 6). Or there is the unexpected evocation of 'poor, proud Bryon', 'sad as grave I And salt as life' (ll.412-13). Or, most fondly of all in this poem that expresses Keats' belief that 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty', there is 'Keats the real Adonis' kissed 'In his Rome-grave, by Venus-queen' (ll. 407-11) — a description that echoes Keats' own vision of the beautiful Adonis in Book 2 of Endymion.
Like Keats in The Fall of Hyperion, Barrett is concerned to distinguish genuine poets from idle dreamers. She dramatizes this distinction through a sudden blast of satire disrupting the sublime fabric of her poet-hero's vision — provoked by the appearance before the altar of a crowd of noisy suitors for poetic fame like the rowdy applicants for fame in Chaucer's [89/90] The House of Fame. Some of these suitors, 'composing sudden sighs ... Rehearsed impromptu agonies'. 'One dulled his eyeballs, as they ached / With Homer's forehead'; another 'his smooth / Pink cheeks did rumple passionate / Like Aeschylus' , prating 'On trolling tongue of fate and fate'; while yet another 'set her eyes like Sappho's — or / Any light woman' (11.604-29). When the spokesman for this troop of dilettantes declares 'we are not pilgrims, nor yet martyrs', they are swept away by a silent 'spirit-blast' emanating from the king-poets, who make their 'presence known by power' (11.676-7). As the references to Homer, Aeschylus and Sappho reveal, Barrett's satiric catalogue of false poets in part reflects her 'anxiety of influence' and her repudiation of her juvenile attempts to imitate the great classical poets.
A more complex 'anxi ety of authorship' arising from her gender is reflected in the structure and narrative perspective of 'A Vision of Poets'. The 'Vision' is narrated in the third person by a narrator who remains shadowy and indefinite — whose presence, in fact, is discernible only towards the close of the pilgrim-poet's vision as s/he describes the pilgrim-poet approaching the altar and wonders if 'a listening life did run / Through the king-poets .. . Rejoicing in a worthy son'. Then, abruptly switching into the first person, the narrator observes, 'My soul, which might have seen, grew blind ' (ll. 727-32). This unnamed narrator assumes greater prominence in the 'Conclusion' that forms a frame to the narrative, where s/he traces the poet-pilgrim's footsteps through a forest and encounters the poet's son, who tells the story of his father's death and subsequent fame, and who seems destined to inherit his father's genius.
The split between the poet-hero and the poet-woman who narrates his vision becomes particularly [90/91] the poem's title, with its deliberately ambiguous genitive construction. As the poem makes clear, 'a vision of poets' refers both to what is seen and to those who see it: both to the company of 'king-poets' Barrett's pilgrim-poet sees, and to the dedicated aspiran ts experiencing such a vision. Barrett herself is such an aspirant, yet she seems almost completely absent from the poem. Moreover, by translating the metaphoric father-son relation between her pilgrimpoet and the company of 'king-poets' into a literal father-son relationship in her 'Conclusion', Barrett reveals her keen sense of how much, as a daughter, she is outside the lines of descent through which poetic power is transmitted. Reflected in the form of the poem, w.ith its split between narrator and poet in the main narrative, and between narrator and poet's son in the framing narrative, we find the woman-poet who has created both the vision and its frame — but, to echo the well known words of Muriel Rukeyser, we find her 'split open, unable to speak, in exile from herself'.17
Unable to speak directly and openly, we might add but it is a crucial qualification. 'I do not say everything I think. . . bu tI take every means to say what I think', Barrett said to Browning (RB-EBB 1:9). And indeed she finds many means to imply what she thinks in 'A Vision of Poets ' . We sense one of her thoughts in the apostrophe to Sappho — 'O poet-woman!' — the only poet directly addressed in her catalogue, and the one with whom Barrett audaciously identified herself in a January 1844 letter to Haydon: 'I am " little & black" like Sappho, en attendant the immortality' (BC 8: 128). Her epigraph for 'A Vision of Poets' also calls attention to her quest for poetic fame. More importantly, like the king-poets she sees in what is, in effect [91/92] her vision, she makes her 'presence known by power' . Indeed, everywhere in the poem we find manifestations of the power she indirectly asserts: in the assimilation of the entire European poetic tradition embodied in her catalogue of king-poets; in the subtle echoing of her precursors from Dante, Chaucer and Spenser to Keats and Browning; in the chiselled, compressed verse commended by many reviewers; in the powerful symphonic lines describing the consummation of the pilgrim-poet's sublime vision — lines that appear, ironically just after the narrator declares the limitations in her own vision (ll.739-74).
Even more overtly, Barrett makes her absent presence disconcertingly felt in the concluding narrative frame she evidently added to the poem some weeks after writing the central portion in the summer of 1843 (LMRM 2:316). The 'Conclusion' of 'A Vision of Poets' has been criticized as a structural overelaboration (CW 2:xxiv). But it is precisely the presence of the shadowy narrator in the 'Conclusion', more of a bystander than Coleridge's wedding guest in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', yet more of a participant in the poet-hero's suffering and glorious vision than his son, that draws our attention to the absent woman-poet who has created both father and son. As Beth Newman points out, if 'A Vision of Poets' dramatically illustrates how a woman poet can be marginalized by a male canonical tradition, it also reveals that meaning can 'be something that happens on the margins', as theorists of narrative framing point out.
From the margins of 'A Vision of Poets', Barrett takes 'every means' to express her own audacious ambition and to imply what she thinks about the lines of d escent connecting 'king-poets' to their 'worthy sons'. A poet needs to have 'the historical sense' which 'compels a man to write not merely with his own [92/93] generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole literature of Europe from Homer ... composes a simultaneous order', T. S. Eliot emphasized in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'.19 In 'A Vision of Poets', Barrett writes with 'the whole literature of Europe from Homer' in her bones. Yet because hers are the bones of a woman, she is sufficiently outside the 'order' of texts Eliot invokes to critique the malecentred genealogical metaphors that uphold it: the metaphors that are consistently invoked, despite the achievement of Barrett Browning and women poets after her, in Eliot's poetics as in Bloom's.
If one accepts Bloom's paradigm of the poet's progress through a six-phase 'scene of instruction' towards poetic incarnation (Map 51-55), 'A Vision of Poets' indicates that Barrett in 1844 was well beyond the early phase of 'Election-love' or imitation evident in her attempt to become a female of Homer and Byron in The Battle of Marathon. She was well beyond too the second phase of 'Covenant-love', with its uneasy fusion of imitation and competition. The 'rise of an individual inspiration or a Muse-principle' that she depicts in her pilgrim-poet's quest for poetic power had already taken place. Together with A Drama of Exile and the important body of ballads in which she had also expressed her Romantic revisionary impulse by 1844, 'A Vision of Poets' charts Barrett's entry into the later phases of 'poetic incarnation' in which she establishes her own 'veritable presence' and differentiates herself into strength. After 1844, the audacity of the Promethean 'fire-thief who dared to refashion precursors as powerful as Aeschylus, Milton and Byron would not be significantly checked again.[93/94]
Last modified 19 May 2014