In their 1867 edition of Bishop Percy's folio of ballads, John H. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall picture the ballad before the Romantic revival as a 'Cinderella' among the Muses:
She had never dared to think herself beautiful. No admiring eyes ever came near her in which she might mirror herself. She had never dared to think her voice sweet .... She met with many enemies, who clamoured that the kitchen was her proper place, and vehemently opposed her admission into any higher room. The Prince was long in finding her out. The sisters put many an obstacle between him and her. ... But at last the Prince found her, and took her in all her simple sweetness to himself.1
Some readers might pause over the class- and genderinflected assumptions in this ingenuous fairy story of a gallantly patronizing 'Prince' taking a low-born maiden 'to himself. But few would dispute the importance of the union Hales and Furnivall fancifully describe. Every student of Romantic poetry recognizes the profound significance of the ballad revival, reflected in [94/95] Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), in Sir Walter Scott's 'minstrelsy', and above all in the Lyrical Ballads published by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798.
Yet the ballad is seldom recognized as an important Victorian genre, even though it attracted major and minor poets throughout the nineteenth century. G. Malcolm Laws' catalogue of literary ballads in the Victorian period (1832-90) is longer than his catalogue for the Romantic period. As Laws' survey suggests, the ballad was held in particular esteem by the Pre-Raphaelite poets (151-58, 89-93). Tennyson, like Hardy after him, also employed innovative variants of the form throughout his long career, in works such as 'The Sisters', with its refrain 'O the Earl was fair to see!', 'The Lady of Shalott' (text), the immensely popular 'Lady Clare Vere De Vere', 'Edward Gray', 'Lady Clare', 'Locksley Hall', 'The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet', and 'Rizpah'. Ballads are particularly numerous in his 1842 Poems, reflecting their prominence in a period marked by the success of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome (1842; complete text) and the continuing popularity of Sir Walter Scott's ballads and narrative poems.
Although Elizabeth Barrett was no 'Prince', she too took that 'Cinderella' among the Muses, the ballad, to herself — not so much because the form was simple and sweet, but because its energy, its strong heroines, its elemental passions of love and revenge, its frank physicality and its sinewy narrative conflicts allowed her to circumvent the ideologies of passionless purity and self-sacrifice confining middle-class Victorian women. Ballads have an even higher profile in her 1844 Poems than in Tennyson's 1842 Poems. Moreover, her 'peculiar skill' in 'this species of poetry' was frequently praised (BC) 9:341, 365).
In our own century, however, popular Victorian [95/96] ballads and Barrett Browning's ballads in particular have been underappreciated for a number of reasons, among them the intersecting ideologies of gender and genre. In short, the marriage celebrated by Hales and Furnivall seems to have ended in divorce, with Cinderella dismissed to her proper place in the kitchen. Ironically, despite Wordsworth's subversion of genre and his democratizing aims in the Lyrical Ballads, most reconstructions of the nineteenth-century ballad tradition have been informed by prescriptive categorical distinctions separating the ballad from the romance, 'serious' poetry from popular verse, literary from authentic folk ballads, Romantic from Victorian poets, and female from male traditions. These critical ideologies have had especially unfortunate consequences in the case of Barrett Browning. Even recent feminist critics disparage her ballads, ironically by placing them in the context of a separate 'feminine genre' of popular ballad-writing which is, in Dorothy Mermin's words, 'sentimental' and 'retrogressive' (91).
By considering the intertextuality of a number of Barrett Browning's ballads and by reconstructing the horizon of expectation against which they were written and read, I hope to show that her innovations can be better appreciated when we approach poems like 'The Poet's Vow', 'The Romaunt of Margret', 'A Romance of the Ganges' and 'The Romaunt of the Page' in the context of the Romantic ballad revival and the tradition it produced. In many cases, Barrett Browning refashioned motifs and conventions from folk ballads and Romantic narrative verse in ways that anticipate the ballads of the Pre-Raphaelite poets. At the same time, however, her handling of the form differs from that of many other poets working in the tradition because of the distinctively gynocentric focus [96/97] of her Romantic revisionary impulse. In her appropriations of the 'Cinderella' among the muses, the ballad is used to subvert the conventional inscriptions of sexual difference the genre appears to confirm. The originality of Barrett Browning's ballads is particularly apparent in her modification of what Nancy K. Miller terms 'female plots' — that is, the plots that 'culture has always already inscribed' for women, plots reinscribed in 'the linear time of fiction (208). Like Charlotte Brontë, Barrett Browning has often been faulted for her handling of plot. Even Mermin generally observes that it was fortunate Barrett Browning did not write novels because she 'had no gift for inventing plots' (186) and the stories in her ballads are 'invariably silly', if 'entertaining' (90). But in many instances the 'silly' stories that Mermin objects to in Barrett's 1838 and 1844 ballads are no more absurd than the plots they play against in the traditional ballads collected by Percy, such as 'Child Waters', and in the ballads and narratives written in the Romantic revival by the German poet Gottfried Bürger, by Scott, and by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The substantial revisions Barrett Browning made in her ballads, both at the manuscript stage and after they had appeared in periodicals and annuals, further illumine her complex adaptation of plots and motifs in precursor texts. These modifications also call in question the common view that she wrote her ballads quickly and did not take them very seriously. In 'The Poet's Vow', Barrett Browning appropriates elements in the anonymous ballads of the Percy collection to carry out a critique of Wordsworth and Coleridge — a critique she extends in the many revisions she made in the poem after its initial publication. In 'The Romaunt of the Page', she subverts the gender-inflected plots in certain of the Percy ballads themselves. Significantly [97/98] the most substantial revisions in 'The Romaunt of the Page' expand the role and motivation of the poem's male protagonist, revealing how Barrett Browning progressively complicated her 'female plots' by portraying their intersections with the social systems that create and encompass them. The changes in 'The Romaunt of the Page' thus look forward to Aurora Leigh, where Barrett Browning shows how the 'female plots' shaping Aurora's existence are inseparable from the gender plots of Romney and his society.
'The Poet's Vow' and 'The Romaunt of Margret', both published in 1836 in the New Monthly Magaz ine, were the first ballads by Barrett to attract the interest of readers. These were followed by 'A Romance of the Ganges', 'The Romaunt of the Page' and 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie', published in the 1838, 1839 and 1840 editions of the annual edited by Mary Mitford, Findens' Tableaux. The 1844 Poems brought substantially revised versions of 'The Romaunt of the Page' and 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie' before a wider public, along with several new poems identified as 'ballads' by contemporary reviewers: most notably 'Rhyme of the Duchess May', 'Bertha in the Lane', 'The Romance of the Swan's Nest', and 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship'. Barrett Browning's ballads were acclaimed by general readers as well as critics, and remained among her most popular works until the end of the century. They were often reprinted in selected editions of her poems, while particular favourites, such as 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' and 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' were republished separately in illustrated editions until well past the turn of the century.
The vogue for ballads in the mid-Victorian period inevitably led to parodies like those in the frequently reprinted 'Bon Gaultier' Ballads (1845), which included [98/99] in one of its later editions a parody of 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' entitled 'The Rhyme of Lancelot Bogle' . Such parodies no doubt contributed to the relatively low profile of the ballad in modern constructions of the Victorian poetical canon — and, in Barrett Browning's case, to the disappearance of her ballads from literary history altogether. The assumption that a popular literary work is of little artistic value has lingered longer in the case of Victorian poets than in the case of novelists such as Dickens or Wilkie Collins.
Paradoxically, in the case of popular literary ballads, the effects of this assumption have been exacerbated by narrow definitions of the genre that privilege the anonymous or 'authentically' popular folk ballad over equally popular literary 'imitations'. J. S. Bratton shrewdly notes some of the limitations of such constraining definitions in the case of Francis ]. Child's enormously influential collection, The English and Scottish Ballads, and detects the 'same assumption of the innate superiority of the traditional ballad' in studies of the literary ballad by Albert B. Friedman and Anne Ehenpreis (4-7). Barrett Browning's ballads have particularly suffered from definitions of the genre privileging the 'authentic' folk form because they move farther away from this model than literary ballads like Keats' 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' and D. G. Rossetti's 'Sister Helen'.
These general assumptions about the popular literary ballad underlie Alethea Hayter's dismissal of Barrett Browning's ballads in 1962 as 'synthetic' confections with a 'certain narrative sweep and excitement' appealing to 'people who did not normally read poetry at all' (81). Hayter adds in extenuation that Barrett Browning 'never really took them seriously', supporting this conclusion with the wellknown lines in Aurora Leigh: [99/100]
My ballads prospered; but the ballad's race
Is rapid for a poet who bears weights
Of thought and golden image. [Book 5:84-86]
Traces of Hayter's disparaging tone persist in recent feminist reinterpretations. Kathleen Hickok dismisses 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' as 'an uninspired jumble', 'The Romaunt of Margret' as completely conventional, and 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' as a 'Spasmodic' poem (173-75). Leighton approaches 'A Romance of the Ganges' and 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' as 'confused and precipitate' ballads 'which Elizabeth Barrett wrote in response to a demand . .. for morally educative poems' directed towards 'a primarily female readership' (1986, 32). Although Leighton has more recently acknowledged the 'modern sexual politics' in 'The Romaunt of the Page', she still describes it as 'an awkward, pseudo-Spenserian ballad' written in 'quirky archaic registers' (1992,82-83).
In a series of articles subsequently incorporated into Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry, Mermin was the first to reinterpret Barrett Browning's ballads as poems providing 'a covert but thorough-going reassessment, often a total repudiation, of the Victorian ideas about womanliness to which they ostensibly appeal ' (71). 'Beneath their apparent conventionality,' Mermin argues, the ballads sceptically examine 'the myths and fantasies of nineteenth-century womanhood', including 'the virtues of self-repression and self-sacrifice' they seem to affirm (90-91). At the same time, Mermin doubts that the poet herself was very aware of the subversiveness of her own poems (90). 'Almost all of her ballads cry out to be read as feminist revisions of old tales', but 'Elizabeth Barrett told the old stories in a style and tone that gave no hint of revisionary intention, and she [100/101] discarded the ballad form without discovering how to use it effectively against itself (95). Detecting a more consistently subversive dimension in Barrett Browning's medieval ballads, Helen Cooper reads them as an examination of 'the sexual economy of courtship and marriage' (70), and Glennis Stephenson analyses their critique of 'chivalric conventions' and gender roles (29). Like Mermin, however, they emphasize the limits of Barrett Browning's revisionism, and approach it within the context of a 'female genre' (Cooper 70) of ballad writing which is 'squarely in the tradition of Letitia Landon (Mermin 107). In keeping with this compartmentalization, Mermin and Cooper separate 'The Poet's Vow' with its male protagonist from the 'romantic ballads' with female protagonists even though 'The Poet's Vow' more clearly employs the ballad form than a poem like 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary'.
Resituating Barrett Browning's ballads within the context of the Romantic ballad revival requires an approach wary of retrospectively imposed compartmentalizations by gender, genre, penod and populanty. Early Victorian conceptions of the ballad seem to have been remarkably broad and inclusive, both in terms of gender and in terms of genre. While some of Barrett Browning's ballads particularly appealed to women, neither the poet herself nor the majority of her readers approached them in the context of a separate feminine tradition. A relatively inclusive generic definition is also in order because assumptions about the ballad form were more amorphous in the early Victorian period than they became after Child's collection of 'authentic' folk ballads appeared.
Like 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary', many of the works described by Barrett's reviewers as ballads might more probably be classified as romances or [101/102] romantic tales today. In fact, 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' bore the subtitle 'A Romance of the Age', yet was still referred to as a ballad by early Victorian reviewers. Albert Friedman and Hermann Fischer acknowledge the difficulty of distinguishing between ballad and romance forms in nineteenth-century narrative verse, and trace the developments that contributed to the mixing of the two modes. Fischer notes that when Scott attempted to describe the new genre of '''romantic poetry'" or romantic verse narrative in 1813, he did 'not distinguish between [sic] ballads, lays and romances'; moreover, Scott's own poetical works reflect an 'eclectic mixture' of conventions from 'the ballad and romance traditions'. Friedman's more condemnatory approach to the 'intrusion of romance' into nineteenth-century 'ballad poetry' reflects the genre ideologies that contributed to the neglect of Barrett Browning's ballad-romances, along with Scott's.5
Barrett Browning's titles for her 'ballads' ('romaunt', lay', 'rhyme', 'romance') and her references to these works in her letters suggest that for her, as for many of her contemporaries, all of these terms were loosely synonymous. Harriet Martineau's reference to Barrett's ballads as her 'Rhyme, Romaunt, lay-style of poem' is indicative (BC) 9: 141). I therefore use the term 'ballad' here as Barrett Browning and other Victorians used it, to refer to all of her narrative poems with clear affinities either with the characteristic features of the ballad form (the ballad stanza, the use of dialogue and the refrain, tragic and/or topical subject matter, narrative compression and intensity) or with the larger tradition of 'minstrelsy' and Romantic narrative verse. The principal exception to this rule is the group of narrative poems with dramatized speakers, including 'Catarina to Camoens', 'Bertha in the Lane', [102/103] 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship', 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', 'Void in Law', and 'Mother and Poet'. These works were often described as 'ballads' and they share many characteristics with both folk ballads and the ballads of the Romantic revival: there are clear echoes of the old Scottish ballad 'Lady Bothwell's Lament' in 'Void in Law', for example. But since this group of poems displays even stronger affinities with the developing form of the dramatic monologue, I have chosen to treat them as such elsewhere and to make only passing reference to their ballad traits below.
Barrett Browning often expressed her love for 'the old burning ballads, with a wild heart beating in each!' (BC) 6:268). She also probably thought of ballad writing as a natural preparation for the writing of an epic, a mode of thinking subsequently borne out by her own career as she moved from writing simpler to more elaborate ballads and narratives between 1836 and 1844, culminating in 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship', which she clearly saw as the germ of her novel-epic Aurora Leigh (LMRM 3:42). As Barrett observed in her 1842 essay, 'The Book of the Poets', the ballad is 'a form epitomical of the epic and dramatic' (6:296). Thus it seems unlikely that she saw her ballads as mere diversionary exercises in a 'feminine' genre or that she devalued her Findens' ballads, as Stephenson suggests (24). On the contrary, her plans for her 1844 volumes reflect the prominence she wished her ballads to have (BC) 6:260).
Unfortunately, space did not permit Barrett to include a survey of the 'anonymous & onymous ballads' in 'The Book of the Poets', as she explained to Mitford (BC) 6:7). Nevertheless, she revealed her enthusiastic appreciation of the Romantic ballad revival and the innovations it fostered. 'We must not [103/104] be thrown back upon the "Ballads," lest we wish to live with them for ever', she fondly observes as she passes them by (CW 6:296). She does find room to allude to 'the réveillé of Dr. Percy's "Reliques of English Poetry"', which sowed 'great hearts' like Wordsworth's with 'impulses of greatness' (298), and to the "Scottish Minstrelsy" , inspired by the Reliques (299-300).
Scott's epic narrative Marmion (1808) is one product of the Romantic ballad revival that enters into the intertextuality of Barrett's 1844 ballads, contributing to the resonance of her depiction of a woman disguised as a page and a nun buried alive in 'The Romaunt of the Page' and 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' . The pronounced Gothic strain in the 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' also owes something to Scott, although it reflects more closely the lingering influence of 'Lenora', the immensely popular German ballad by Gottfried Bürger that was so important a prototype for Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott and Southey in the 1790s, as Mary Jacobus and Stephen Parrish have shown.6
Barrett's readers and reviewers up to 1844 were quick to link her ballads to such precursors in the larger ballad tradition. Responding to 'The Poet's Vow' in 1836, Mitford wrote to Barrett, 'I have just read your delightful ballad. My earliest book was "Percy's Reliques," the delight of my childhood; and after them came Scott's "Minstrelsy of the Borders," the favorite of my youth; so I am prepared to love ballads' (BC) 3: 195). Reviewers similarly viewed 'The Romaunt of the Page' and 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' as 'revivals of the old English ballad, to which Miss BARRETT appears to be extremely partial' (BC) 9:370, 326). John Forster compared 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' to the Scottish border ballad 'Edom [104/105] o'Gordon' in Percy's Reliques, while Sarah Flower Adams observed of the same poem, 'it has all the rapidity of action of "Lenore", [and] the descriptive power of Scott and Campbell, united with the deep pathos of the earlier Scottish ballads' (BC 9:347, 376).
Nevertheless, Scott and company were not the most important precursors for Barrett the balladist; Wordsworth and Coleridge were. Her focus on abandoned or betrayed women in early ballads such as 'The Romance of the Ganges' has reinforced the assumption that she was writing primarily in a sentimental female tradition. But such figures were a staple in traditional ballads such as 'Lady Bothwell's Lament', in German ballads by Bürger like 'The Lass of Fair Wane', and in lyrical ballads by Wordsworth, such as 'The Mad Mother' and 'The Thorn'. 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', which Barrett Browning referred to as a 'long ballad' (LMRM 3:310), adapts motifs from 'The Lass of Fair Wone' and the 'The Thorn' (the mother's act of infanticide and burial of her child beneath the roots of a tree), as well as from 'The Mad Mother'.
Barrett was also drawn to Coleridge's 'Christabel', with its sinister symbolic mother-daughter relationship and its innovative irregular metre. Jacobus observes that many of the Lyrical Ballads are like 'Christabel' in releasing 'subconscious impulses' in 'dramatic confrontation' (225). Much the same can be said of two of Barrett Browning's ballads that echo 'Christabel', 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary', and 'Isobel's Child'. The latter, published in 1838, resembles Coleridge's poem in its loose ballad form, in its Gothic imagery and setting, and in its symbolically indirect treatment of the dark undercurrents in a mother's possessive love for her dying infant. Sara Coleridge was one Victorian [105/106] reader who noticed that 'Isobel's Child' was 'like "Christabel" in manner' (BC 8:333).
The poems with female protagonists in the Lyrical Ballads seem to be those which most directly influenced Barrett Browning's choice of subject matter and perspective in many of her ballads. In representing female subjects, however, Wordsworth remained a 'man speaking to men', to cite his famous 'Preface', whereas she increasingly wrote as a woman speaking to women. William Herridge observed in 1887 that her ballads 'appeal with an especial force to the author's own sex, and strike almost every note in the scale of woman's thought and emotion' (612-13). 'The Poet's Vow' and 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' with their male protagonists skilfully combine an appeal to both male and female readers. But in each of these works, the female characters who seem to be secondary become the centre of interest by the end of the poem.
The impact of the Lyrical Ballads is also apparent in Barrett Browning's use of the ballad form throughout her career to extend the social consciousness of a community of readers. Noting the conflation of the traditional ballad and the topical broadside ballad in Wordsworth's use of the form, Tilottama Rajan describes his interest in the genre as 'social not antiquarian' (140). Barrett Browning was similarly interested in the power of the ballad to appeal to common human sympathies: 'all the passion of the heart will go into a ballad, & feel at home', she observed (cited Mermin 90). As 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' indicates, she turned to a variant on the ballad form to cut across class barriers and, in this case, sexual and racial divisions as well.
In her later career, however, Barrett Browning was inclined to be more radically polemical than Wordsworth in appropriating the ballad for political [106/107 purposes, following Shelley's example more than Wordsworth's. In the 1854 political poem, 'A Song for the Ragged Schools of London', she writes in the tradition of the topical broadside ballad, using the form as Shelley had used it in 'Song to the Men of England' and 'The Mask of Anarchy', and as it was widely used by the Chartists in England during the 1840s. As I have argued elsewhere, 'A Song for the Ragged Schools' adapts and strategically revises Shelley's rhetorical tactics in 'A Mask of Anarchy' to reach an audience more female than male ('Cursing', 161-62). This highly political 'Song' was written to help raise money not for the Ragged Schools in general, but for a refuge for young destitute girls that Barrett Browning's sister Arabella helped to establish, one of the first of its kind. Moreover, in a female appropriation of the broadside ballad tradition, it was first published in a pamphlet sold at a charity bazaar.
If Barrett Browning departs from Wordsworth's example in making directly political use of the ballad, she also differs from both Scott and Wordsworth in her handling of narrative. Like the traditional ballads in the Percy collection, her ballads typically exhibit a strong narrative propulsion, despite the fact that she herself did not value narrative as the highest element in poetry (BC 4: 109). 'It is the story that has power with people', she recognized (LEBB 1 :247). She was strongly influenced by Wordsworth's focus on the psychological complexities of dramatized speakers, but she was equally drawn to the narratives of human conflict in the old anonymous ballads — conflict that Wordsworth tended to avoid in lyricizing the form. Rajan rightly detects an 'elision' of political and social concerns in Wordsworth's reduction of 'narrative to a lyric tableau that constructs the world in terms of feeling rather than events or situations' (145). The [107/108] result is an apolitical 'hermeneutics of sentimentalism' that privileges archetypal and universal feeling over political, social, and gender differences.
Barrett Browning's focus, on the contrary, is on configurations of plot and character that foreground ideologically grounded gender differences in their intricate intersections with other hierarchies of power: man over Nature, God over man, knight over page, parent over child, priest over nun, and, in 'The Runaway Slave', master over slave. In many cases, these configurations create ironies intensified by her revisionary echoes of earlier texts and her appropriations of common ballad motifs. Rajan points out that, because the ballad is a 'cultural palimpsest inhabited by traces of more than one ideology', it 'functions as a psychic screen on which desires having to do with ideological authority and hermeneutic community are projected and analysed' (141-42). Barrett Browning's ballads function in precisely this way. When we appreciate their allusive intertextuality, we can read them not only as inscriptions of resistance to Victorian ideologies of womanhood, but also as subversive transformations of texts and conventions familiar to early Victorian readers.
In many cases, the convolutions and excesses that disrupt the narrative propulsion of Barrett Browning's ballads embody her critique of the 'plausible' plots encoding woman's lives in earlier ballads, both 'anomymous & onymous' . As Nancy Miller points out in Subject to Change, such plots seem 'plausible' because they embody the assumptions of the dominant ideologies promoting their constant reiteration (208) Like Hardy in the 'The Ruined Maid', Barrett Browning undermines such plausibility and the ideologies that sustain it. Most notably, in her ballads of the 1830s and 40s, she employs the starker power structures of medieval [108/109] society to foreground the status of women as objects in a male economy of social exchange, and to unmask the subtler preservation of gender inequities in contemporary Victorian ideology. Thus, like some of the 'honey-mad' women writers Patricia Yaeger discusses, she engages in 'a form of textual violation that ... overgoes social norms by doubling them, by making them visible' (117).
'The Poet's Vow', the 1836 ballad in which Barrett Browning most noticeably echoes the Lyrical Ballads, illustrates the striking differences between her handling of the ballad form and Wordsworth's. It also reveals her artful use of folk ballad conventions to carry out a revision of both Wordsworth and Coleridge. As Cooper suggests, 'The Poet's Vow' is a critique of the Romantic ideology positing Nature as female, 'the silent other' (37). Possessed by the conviction that mankind has afflicted Earth with the curse of the fall , the nameless and representative poet referred to in the poem's title vows to forswear contact with humanity, consecrating himself to communion with Nature instead . Publicly declaring his vow, he bestows his 'plighted bride' Rosalind upon his 'oldest friend' Sir Roland, offering his own lands as Rosalind's dower (ll.136-40).
Declining to be the object in this male exchange, the betrayed Rosalind, still 'half a child', rejects the 'cruel homily' the poet has found in 'the teachings of heaven and earth' (11.165-72). Years later, after the poet alone in his hall has withered within from 'rejection of his humanness' (1.266), Rosalind dies and instructs that her bier be placed before his 'bolted door': '"For I have vowed, though I am proud, / To go there as a guest in shroud / And not be turned away" (11.371-5). On her breast, like a Lady of Shalott who refuses to be judged merely by her 'lovely face', she bears a scroll: [109/110]
'I left thee last, a child at heart,
A woman scarce in years.
I come to thee, a solemn corpse
Which neither feels nor fears.
Look on me with thine own calm look:
I meet it calm as thou.
No look of thine can change this smile,
Or break thy sinful vow:v I tell thee that my poor scorned heart
Is of thine earth — thine earth, a part:
It cannot vex thee now.' [11.416-29]
As Mermin notes (65-6), the 'unmistakable' echoes in these lines of Wordsworth's famous Lucy poem, 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal', reflect Barrett's recognition of the 'unprivileged position of woman' in the Romantic myth of a female Nature. To speak with the voice of Nature is to speak with the voice of the dead — or, as in Wordsworth's poem, with the voice of the male poet who chooses to commingle with Nature and the dead. In either case, the individual woman is buried.
The crucial difference, of course, in Barrett Browning's rewriting of the Romantic man-Nature love relationship is that in 'The Poet's Vow' we do hear the voice of the still unburied Rosalind speaking from the scroll as an individual woman, not as a mythic female force articulated by the male poet. Rosalind speaks, moreover, with all of the passion and bitterness of the betrayed women in the old anonymous ballads published by Percy. She bears a particularly striking resemblance to the dead Margaret in 'Margaret's Ghost', who appears at her lover's bedside to indict him for betraying his plighted troth (III 310-13). By superimposing a traditional ballad plot of human love and betrayal on Wordsworth's lyrical ballad of fusion [110/111] with Nature, Barrett Browning foregrounds the conflicts he elides in identifying Lucy with the earth, thereby disrupting his focus on apparently universal feeling.
In substantially revising 'The Poet's Vow', first for her 1838 volume The Seraphim, and Other Poems, and then for her 1850 Poems, Barrett Browning intensified both the narrative conflicts between the poet and Rosalind, and the passion and forcefulness of her ballad heroine. In the process, she extended her critique of Wordsworth. For instance, in both the New Monthly Magazine and the 1838 versions of poem, the section entitled 'The Words of Rosalind's Scroll' begins with, '"I left thee last, a feeble child / In those remembered years"'. In revising, Barrett Browning removed the emphasis on her heroine's feebleness, and made it clear that, though Rosalind was' "a woman scarce in years'" (l.417) like Wordsworth's Lucy when her lover consigned her to her fate, she speaks now with a woman's desires and a woman's strength. The revisions also intensifY Rosalind's bitter scorn for the poet's' "sinful vow" (l.426). In the two earliest versions, the second stanza of Rosalind's scroll ends with the lines, '"My silent heart, of thine earth, is part — / It cannot love thee now", — not with the forceful declaration cited above:
I tell thee that my
poor scorned heart
Is of thine earth — thine earth a part:
It cannot vex thee now.
The syntactic doubling in 'of thine earth — thine earth' undoes Wordsworthian ideology by simultaneously exaggerating and contradicting the identification of woman and nature he assumes in the Lucy poems. Moreover, by intensifying Rosalind's bitterness, Barrett Browning forces the reader to distinguish between the betrayed feelings of an individual woman and Nature as mythic female presence. [111/112]
'The Poet's Vow' provides a further critique of Wordsworth in demonstrating the limited redemptive influence of recollections of early childhood and in ironically subverting Wordsworth's own teaching. Additional revisions in the poem emphasize the redeeming memories the poet should have shared with Rosalind — memories he has apparently forgotten. Meanwhile, the epigraph from 'Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree' added in 1838 implies that Wordsworth himself should have followed his own instruction. 'O be wiser thou, / Instructed that true knowledge leads to love', the epigraph reads. In Wordsworth's poem, this advice from the moralizing poet is prompted by the example of a hermit who withdrew from the world and .died in the pride of his solitude. But in 'The Poet's Vow', it is the Wordsworthian poet himself who withdraws into the pride of solitary communion with Nature and who therefore needs instruction. Barrett Browning thus turns Wordsworth's teaching back on his own example.
Still other revisions in 'The Poet's Vow' emphasize the ironic contradictions between the poet's 'vow' to mate himself with the 'touching, patient Earth' (l.68) and his broken vow to Rosalind . Moreover, in the 1850 version Barrett Browning added explicit reference to her vow ('"For I have vowed ... "'). This revision foregrounds both the ambiguities of the title and the narrative doublings the ballad's convoluted plot enacts. Not only is the poet's vow itself doubled, given that the poet breaks his vow to Rosalind in making his vow to Earth. The figure of the poet is also doubled, as Rosalind uses her scroll to publish her vow. In implying that the representative poet of the title may be female, Barrett Browning subverts the universalizing assumption that the poet is male. More tellingly, of the two poets in 'The Poet's Vow', [112/113] Rosalind speaking from her scroll seems to be the stronger. In the poem's words, she is 'Triumphant Rosalind!', as the words of her text and the text of her body com bine to 'wring' a cry from the 'longsubjected humanness' (11.458-66) of the poet who has 'vowed his blood of brotherhood / To a stagnant place apart' (11.53-4).
Such passages in 'The Poet's Vow' point to its parallels with Tennyson's 'The Palace of Art' (text), where the proud and sinful soul of the speaker who withdraws from human contact becomes 'a spot of dull stagnation'. The Victorian critic Peter Bayne aptly described Barrett Browning's poem as 'the ethical complement of Tennyson's' in its treatment of 'the cardinal sin of isolation from human interests' (38). But of the two, 'The Poet's Vow' is the more pertinent and telling critique, since Barrett Browning makes her representative male poet a lover of Nature, whereas Tennyson makes his sterile aesthete a lover of art, a type that less often appears in Romantic poetry.
Barrett Browning's representation of the poet's love of Nature in 'The Poet's Vow' incorporates a critique of Coleridge along with Wordsworth. This critique is accomplished principally through an echo of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' that ironically questions Coleridge's vision of the mariner's redemption. In a passage of 'The Poet's Vow' anticipating the ending of Tennyson's 'The Two Voices', Barrett Browning describes her solitary poet looking down from his lattice to see 'Three Christians' going by to prayer, then a bridal party, and finally a little child watching the 'lizards green and rare' playing near the wall. But the poet remains unmoved, even by the child, who remains 'Unblessed the while for his childish smile / Which cometh unaware' (11.301-2). Thus the spontaneous release that comes to the Ancient Mariner [113/114] when, 'unaware', he blesses the watersnakes does not come to Barrett Browning's poet. The child's spontaneous response to Nature's beauty cannot undo the effects of a crime against the poet's own humanity originally motivated by a misplaced love of Nature. This ironic echo of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' emphasizes the revisionary intent of Barrett Browning's poem and points to her reasons for making her alienated figure a poet who sins against his 'humanness', rather than a man who sins against the natural order, as in Coleridge's poem. Despite its use of supernatural rather than natural incidents, 'The Ancient Mariner' powerfully reinforces the idea expressed elsewhere in the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth: that Nature and natural feeling, defamiliarized by the poet, offer sinful man redemption. But the poet's feeling of fusion with Nature that brings redemption in the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge becomes the very source of alienation in Barrett Browning's poem.
This alienation is only overcome in 'The Poet's Vow' when the 'wail' of the poet's 'living mind' fuses with Rosalind's 'senseless corpse' (11.462-3) . While 'earth and sky' look on 'indifferently', God smites the poet with his own 'rejected nature' (11.478-83) and he joins his fellow poet Rosalind in death, much as William finally joins the ghost of Margaret in her grave in the Percy ballad: 'They dug beneath the kirkyard grass / For both one dwelling deep' (11.491-92). Despite the tone of reconciliation in these lines, the note of revenge more obviously pervades the conclusion to 'The Poet's Vow'. This feature again links the poem to the old folk tradition, in which revenge is as common a motif as betrayal. In Barrett Browning's rewriting of the male Romantic communion with Nature, the Supernatural assists 'Triumphant [114/115] Rosalind' in achieving her revenge, as she recalls the arrogant male poet to a recognition of her humanness as well as his.
The focus on female subjectivity in the second half of 'The Poet's Vow' intensifies in Barrett Browning's other ballads of the 1830s: 'A Romance of the Ganges', 'The Romaunt of Margret' and 'The Romaunt of the Page'. The first of these has much in common with the exotic poems of 'psuedo-Oriental sentimentalism' popular in the early nineteenth century: poems such as Landon's 'The Hindoo Girl's Song' (Hickok 172). But 'A Romance of the Ganges' has even closer affinities with the traditional ballad . Although the poem was written to accompany an illustration in the 1838 Findens' Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume, Barrett Browning down plays the exotic elements of costume, setting and nationality. Instead, as in 'The Poet's Vow', she focuses on the burning passions of love and revenge so pervasive in the Percy ballads.
In 'A Romance of the Ganges', however, these passions are exclusively female, as the male lover becomes no more than an absent catalyst for the narrative conflict between the betrayed Luti and her unwitting rival Nuleeni. With a further twist, Barrett Browning transforms the two women of 'A Romance of the Ganges' from rivals in love into accomplices in revenge, much as Tennyson does in 'The Sisters', a ballad which she later praised (BC) 6:212). Thus Luti leads the child-like Nuleeni to vow to ' "whisper" , to her bridegroom on her wedding day, '"There is one betrays / While Luti suffers woe" (ll.161-62) . And to her '''little bright-faced son'" when he asks '''What deeds his sire hath done" " Nuleeni vows to whisper, "There is none denies, / While Luti speaks of wrong", (11.171-2). When Nuleeni, in wondering innocence, [115/116] softly asks why Luti would wish to defile a '"brideday", with a '"word of woe", and a sinless child's ear with a '"word of wrong" " her fellow maiden cries out:
'Why?' Luti said, and her laugh was dread,
And her eyes dilated wild —
'That the fair new love may her bridegroom prove,
And the father shame the child!' [ll.174-85]
In 'A Romance of the Ganges' we begin to see the 'strong, angry heroine who dominates' most of Barrett Browning's ballads (Mermin 72). Indeed, Luti's cry for revenge registers an unrepentant excess that is formal as well as emotional, for her fierce declaration appears in four extra lines that spill over the limits of the eight-line ballad stanza employed throughout 'A Romance of the Ganges'. It is as if the river flowing in insistent monotone through the poem's constant refrain, 'The river floweth on' — resisting as well as marking each stanza's containment — has suddenly risen in angry overflow. As the refrain implies and the narrative makes clear, Luti's bitterness and grief flow from herself to Nuleeni. Thus the curious use of the female pronoun without a clear referent in the first stanza proves justified: 'The wave-voice seems the voice of dreams / That wander through her sleep: / The river floweth on.' (11.7-9). The pronoun in the final line — 'She weepeth dark with sorrow' — is similarly ambiguous in its possible reference to both Luti and Nuleeni. Luti could be any woman, the poet implies, and her sorrow every woman's. In the earlier 1836 ballad 'The Romaunt of Margret', the 'running river' in which the protagonist enounters the shadow of her own darkest fears murmurs a parallel story of betrayal and 'failing human love' (11.39, 240). The shade that rises from the river to [116/117] confront Margret torments her with the thoughts that the love of her brother, her father, her sister, and her lover — all, all, will prove inconstant. The poem derives some of its power from the haunting effect of its relentlessly darkening images: the sound of 'silent forests ' growing between the pauses of the shade's voice (68); the recurrent trembling of the shade's movement on the grass 'with a low, shadowy laughter'; the shadows falling 'from the stars above, / In flakes of darkness' on Margret's face (11.204-6). Margret finally drowns herself in despair, fusing with her dark double and, ironically, with the inconstancy of the river in death
The spell-binding effect of 'The Romaunt of Margret' is deepened by the ambiguities that Barrett Browning subtly develops. Were Margret's dark doubts justified or not? Does she suffer from the inconstancy of others' love, or the inconstancy of her own faith in love? Is the love of the knight who has given her no sign but an apparently heartfelt 'look' a 'transient' love because he is unfaithful or because he is dead (11.l97,210)? , "The wild hawk's bill doth dabble still / I' the mouth that vowed thee true" , (11.211-12), the shade whispers with grisly _ relish. Lines such as these give 'The Romaunt of Margret' 'the true sadness of the old ballads' and their 'genuine cold grue' (Hayter 32).
The narrative frame of the poem, presenting an anonymous minstrel singing the 'wild romaunt' of Margret to the accompaniment of a harp, suggests how closely and consciously Barrett Browning was writing within the tradition revived by Percy's Reliques. Indeed, she may have felt particularly drawn to the minstrel tradition because, although Bishop Percy declared in the first edition of the Reliques that no 'real Minstrels were of the female sex', by the fourth edition if not before, the preface acknowledged that there were [117/118] women minstrels who accompanied their ballads with the music of the harp.12 In 'The Romaunt of Margret' , the minstrel's sex is not revealed. But the intensity of the narrator's response to Margret's fate — 'Hang up my harp again / I have no voice for song' (ll. 236-37) — may imply that the minstrel too is a woman.
Cooper suggests that the minstrel's apparent identification with Margret manifests the 'confused relationship of the narrator to her tale' (34) and her inadequacy to conclude her story. The minstrel's cry is a conventional framing device, however. More importantly, it marks the poem's movement into a deliberately ambiguous coda in which Barrett Browning develops the Doppelgänger motif at a metanarrative level. The minstrel concludes but is unable to resolve the tale of Margret's dark inner conflicts. Her final series of laments (ll. 240-44) can be read either as her response to the 'failing human love' that has betrayed Margret, or as her condemnation of Margret's own failing love. In effect, then, the minstrel mirrors the division within Margret herself embodied in the refrain, 'Margret, Margret'. In its subtle double depiction of the dialogue of the mind with itself, 'The Romaunt of Margret' justifies Cornelius Mathews' observation that Barrett's handling of the ballad form is 'subjective' (BC 9:342).
'The Romaunt of the Page' is a less 'subjective' in which a woman disguised as a man follows her lover to war or to sea. Barrett Browning was undoubtedly familiar with one of the most famous of the Female Warrior ballads, the variant on 'Mary Ambree' included in Percy's Reliques. By illuminating the social and historical conditions that explain the immense popularity of the 'Female Warrior' ballads among diverse social classes, Dugaw's study indirectly suggests why a literary ballad like 'The Romaunt of the Page' had such a widespread appeal at a time when popular ballads like 'Mary Ambree' were dying out because of an increasingly inflexible 'semiotics of gender' (146, 172, 164).
Mitford revealed her critical acumen in making 'The Romaunt of the Page' the lead poem in the 1839 Findens' Tableaux of the Affections: A Series of Picturesque Illustrations of the Womanry Virtues. She also singled it out in the 'Preface' and praised it privately to Barrett as 'by far the finest thing that you have ever written' (BC 5: 135). Reviews of the 1839 Findens', with the exception of The Literary Gazette, were equally laudatory, describing 'The Romaunt of the Page' as 'a poem with the spirit of the elder and better day of poetry in every line of it', 'dipped in the hues of ballad minstrelsy' and 'full of the early spirit of English poetry' (BC) 4:405-6).
As these comments suggest, readers clearly linked 'The Romaunt of the Page' to the ballads recovered in the Romantic revival. Henry Chorley was atypical in relating the poem to the exclusively female tradition of 'Records of Woman' by Hemans and other 'songstresses' in his reviews of Findens' (BC) 4:409) and of the 1844 Poems (BC) 9:320). Chorley's association of 'The Romaunt of the Page' with Hemans is justified in one respect: the poem's conclusion does echo certain details in Hemans' ballad 'Woman on the Field of Battle' (which appeared in Songs of the Affections, not 'The Romaunt of the Page' is a less 'subjective' ballad than 'The Romaunt of Margret', yet ultimately a more complex one that achieves its effects by subtly adapting the conventional figure of the woman-page so prevalent in the drama, in ballads and in Romantic narrative verse. As Dianne Dugaw suggests in Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, the female page has many features in common with the transvestite heroine who appears in the 'Female Warrior' ballads popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [119/120] Records of Woman). But the differences between Hemans' ballad and 'The Romaunt of the Page' are much more striking than the parallels, and again they help to reveal the distinctive features of Barrett Browning's ballad-writing. Whereas Hemans presents a static, sentimental tableau of womanly sacrifice in 'Woman Slain on the Field of Battle', showing no interest in the narrative that leads up to it, Barrett Browning develops an ironic series of narrative conflicts in which a knight and a lady are both victimized by a system of gender relations treating women as objects of exchange. Much as Barrett Browning's woman-page is slain by the Saracens, Hemans pictures a 'gentle and lovely form' with 'golden hair' slain on the battlefield: an image that appears in the manuscript version of 'The Romaunt of the Page', though not in the published version. In Hemans' ballad, however, only one motive could have led a woman to such a death, the poet declares: not glory, but love, which 'Woman's deep soul too long / Pours on the dust' (235).
Love is also a force contributing to the fate of Barrett's heroine, but in this case it is only one element in a subtle mix of circumstances, motives, and passions. 'The Romaunt of the Page' begins in medias res, with a knight and a page returning from 'the holy war in Palestine' (1.2), where the page has saved the knight's life 'once in the tent, and twice in fight' (l.11). As thoughts of home fill the minds of both, the page recalls the dying prayer of his mother, while the knight points out to the page that, although he has proven himself in battle, he is too silent to serve well in the bower of the knight's lady. The page leads the knight to speak more of his lady: is she 'little loved or loved aright' (l.100)? Gloomily, the knight explains that he doesn't even know what his lady looks like since he [120/121] married her in haste and darkness before leaving for Palestine. Moreover, he makes it clear that he married her out of a sense of obligation to his friend Earl Walter, who lost his life in avenging the honour of the knight's own dead father. On her deathbed, the Earl's wife sent for the knight and asked him to marry her daughter, the 'sweet child' made 'an orphan for thy father's sake' (ll.162-63). Bitterly the knight recalls how his bride rose from the ceremony '[a]nd kissed the smile of mother dead, / Or ever she kissed me' (11.180-1).
In revising the Findens' version of 'The Romaunt of the Page' for its reissue in her 1844 Poems, Barrett Browning made the narrative fuller, more complex, more ironic, and more conflicted in developing the psychology of the knight and the page. Most notably, she greatly expanded the knight's inset narrative of the marriage forced on him by circumstance and the chivalric code — a narrative reversing the conventional plot in which a knight or a 'stranger (to all save the reader)', as Robert Browning facetiously remarked, wins a bride because the father owes his life or some other debt to him (RB-EBB 2:881). Barrett's additions create sympathy for the knight and develop his passions with psychological depth as he declares that it would have been better if he had avenged his own father and died, rather than have 'murdered friend and marriage-ring / Forced on [his] life together' (ll. 146-47).
Responding with tears of grief to the knight's tale, the page explains that his own sister was married as the knight's lady was, but that she 'laid down the silks she wore' and followed her new husband to the 'battleplace', '[d]isguised as his true servitor'. The knight reacts with a 'careless laugh': [121/122]
'Well done it were for thy sister,
But not for my ladye!
My love, so please you, shall requite
No woman, whether dark or bright,
Unwomaned if she be.' [ll.191-96]
In this case again, Barrett's revisions intensify conflict between her two characters. In the manuscript the knight simply laughs 'loudly'; while in Findens' his laugh is 'gay', not 'careless', and the last three lines of his declaration are briefer and less unequivocal.
As the page passionately defends his hypothetical sister's actions to the scornful knight, Barrett presents her ironically paradoxical vision of the 'womanly virtues' the 1839 Findens' was meant to celebrate:
'Oh, womanly she prayed in tent,
When none beside did wake!
Oh, womanly she paled in fight,
For one beloved 's sake! -
And her little hand, defiled with blood,
Her tender tears of womanhood
Most woman-pure did make!' [ll.207-13]
Such a combination of heroic valour 'in fight' and womanly devotion is also quite typical of the 'Female Warrior' ballads that Dugaw explores, but in early nineteenth-century variants on these, as in 'The Romaunt of the Page', insistent 'gender-markers' like Barrett's phrase 'little hand' became much more common (149).
Little hand or not, such a woman-servitor is wholly unacceptable in the eyes of Barrett's knight, who reiterates his belief in a more conventional type of womanly virtue that hides behind a veil. ' "No casque shall hide her woman's tear"' (l.220), he declares in [122/123] an ironically prophetic, punning line that does. not appear in the manuscript. According to the kmght, womanly virtue is '"[s]o high, so pure, and so apart", from the world that it shines like' "a small bnght cloud / Alone amid the 'skies!" , (11.230-3). If his own lady so '"mistook"' his mind as to follow him disguised into battle, the knight asserts that he "would forgive" her, and "evermore / Would love her as my servitor / But little as my wife" (ll. 223-29). As the little cloud that provokes the knight's comparison disappears behind a blacker one, the page sees the Saracens approaching. But while ' the page seeth all, the knight seeth none' (1.241), presumably because his eyes are still dazzled by what Barrett Brownmg scornfully referred to as the 'cloud-minding theory' of idealized womanhood (LMRM 3:81). As Stephenson notes (29-32), Barrett thought this chivalric theory was as perniciously confining for women as the 'pudding-making and stocking-darning' theory. 'Twas a stroke of policy in those ranty-pole barons of old to make their lady-loves idols, and curb their wives with silken idleness', another Victorian woman astutely remarked.16
Barrett Browning dramatically reveals the sterility of the chivalric ideal of womanhood in the hauntingly anticlimactic ballad, 'The Romance of the Swan's Nest' in many ways the counterpart of ' The Romaunt of the Page'. In this depiction of a young girl's fantasies, the female who opts for the conventional lady's role of inspiring rather than followmg her knight — of being his idol rather than his disguised page and 'servitor ' — is as bitterly betrayed as .her more active opposite. As Cooper observes (97), Little Ellie's fate in 'The Romance of the Swan's Nest' shows how 'dreaming courtly fantasies .. . gnaws at women's energy, sexuality, and identity' as insidiously as the [123/124] rat gnaws at the reeds surrounding the empty swan's nest in the poem's ending.
'The Romaunt of the Page' concludes with the page sending the blind knight on before to safety, while the loyal 'servitor' drops her disguise, and the embittered wife exclaims,
'Have I renounced my womanhood
For wifehood unto thee,
And is this the last, last look of thine
That ever I shall see?
Yet God thee save, and mayst thou have
A lady to thy mind,
More woman-proud and half as true
As one thou leav'st behind!' [ll.276-83]
Disillusioned by earthly love, Earl Walter's daughter turns to God's love and faces the Saracens, a "Christian Page" , who taunts the enemy as boldly as any knight might do (l. 301). 'False page, but truthful woman' (l.227), she dauntlessly dies beneath the scimitar, meeting its downward sweep
with smile more bright in victory
Than any sword from sheath. [ll. 225-26]
Mermin observes of this conclusion that the protagonist of 'The Romaunt of the Page' 'succumbs to an ideal of "womanly virtues" that the poet both scorns and shares' because her page chooses 'a woman's fate — unrecognizing, self-sacrificing death' (91-92) . Hickok similarly views the poem as 'a sentimental tale of extreme wifely devotion and self-sacrifice' (173). What such readings do not address, however, is the fact that Barrett Browning's heroic page never acts more like a man, in conventional terms, than when she is 'truthful woman'. Even her smile flashes like a sword. Moreover, her motives are mixed rather than [124/125] 'pure' in that, like so many folk ballad heroines, she is driven as much by revenge as by devotion.
In revising 'The Romaunt of the Page' Barrett Browningintensified the woman-page's more vindictive motives. For example, in the manuscript, the page wishes her knight may find another lady 'More woman-proud, yet all as true / As one thou leavest behind'. In Findens' she wishes he may find a lady 'More woman-proud, not faithfuller / Than one thou leav'st behind!' The change from 'al1 as true' to 'half as true' is startling, bringing out the anger in the page's comment to her departing master, 'ride on thy way' (l. 250) , altered from the more tender address of 'my master dear' in the Findens ' version. The page's pledge to be near to her master as 'parted spirits cleave / To mortals too beloved to leave' (ll. 259-60) has a rather ominous note to it as well. Does the outraged wife plan to bless him from above, like the dying Catarina in 'Catarina to Camoens'? Or does she plan to haunt him? Perhaps the thought of her will indeed haunt him when he arrives home and realizes that the page who sacrificed himself for him was also the wife he so fiercely resented — a quite probable narrative extrapolation that is not considered in interpreting the page's sacrifice as unrecognized. He may be 'a knight of gallant deeds' (l. 1), but how will he feel when he discovers, as the reader already has, that in this particular 'romaunt', the page and not the knight performs with greatest gallantry?
The ironies permeating 'The Romaunt of the Page' are intensified when Barrett Browning's representation of the lady-page figure is read against its prototypes in ballads like 'Child Waters' and 'A Not-browne Mayd' and in Scott's Marmion. The immediate inspiration of 'The Romaunt of the Page' was the illustration Mitford supplied Barrett with, picturing a woman [125/126] disguised as a page, wearing a very short skirt and hiding behind a tree in the foreground, while a knight rides away from her in the background (BC 4:192). But it is clear that the conventions of the old ballads and 'Child Waters' in particular were in Barrett's mind when she composed the poem. Apologizing to Mitford for the length of her 'long barbarous ballad', she quips, 'I ought to blush — as lad yes always do in ballads — "scarlet-red" ... By the way, the pictured one pretty as she is, has a good deal exaggerated the ballad-receipt for making a ladye page — Do you remember? — "And you must cut your gown of green / An INCH above the knee"! She comes within the fi fo fum of the prudes, in consequence' (BC 4:33,38) . The 'receipt for making a ladye page' Barrett cites is Child Waters' own, in the ballad of the same title in Percy's Reliques.
The frankly physical treatment of the heroine's ordeals in 'Child Waters' supplies an interesting subtext to the declaration of Barrett Browning's knight that, if his lady followed him as his page, he would love her as his 'servitor' but not as his wife. Hardly the conventional model of chivalry, Child Waters instructs his female companion Ellen, swollen with child by him, to cut off her skirt and her hair and run barefoot as his foot-page by his side. In this state, she must run to the north country, swim a swollen river, stable and feed his horse, find him a paramour to spend the night with (while she lies at the foot of the bed), and then feed his horse again. Finally, as she is moaning with labour pains in the stable, Child Waters' mother hears her, the gallant knight arrives to see the babe born, and like Griselda, Ellen is rewarded. Child Waters tells her to be of good cheer: he will marry her. But the ballad ends before the marriage takes place. [126/127]
'The Romaunt of the Page' clearly echoes 'Child Waters' but also reverses its plot by making marriage the beginning and cause of the page's ordeals, not the end. Moreover, Barrett Browning shifts the focus of her ballad, both in its title and its narrative perspective, to the woman-page rather than the knight. In her ballad, it is the knight who is tested and found wanting, not the woman who is tested and rewarded. A testing of woman's devotion similar to that in 'Child Waters' appears in another Percy ballad Barrett Browning particularly liked, 'The Not-browne Mayd' (BC 7:266). The revisionary narrative of 'The Romaunt of the Page' is therefore written against a standard ballad plot of 'plausible' female constancy, as much as against a particular ballad.
Several textual echoes and parallels also connect 'The Romaunt of the Page' to Scott's epic romance Marmion, which more directly suggests the perils that attend the woman who proves her love by followmg her knight as his page.17 When Constance breaks her religious vows to follow Marmion disguised as a horseboy in his train, he treats her as such, making her not only his servitor but also his whore. Betraymg his promise to marry her, he pursues the wealthy young Clara instead, while Constance is buried alive in the walls of a monastery dungeon for breaking her religious vows. Marmion indicates why, in the more prudish 1830s, Barrett was careful to have her heroine marry her knight before following him as her page, and like 'Child Waters', it illumines the narrative innovations in 'The Romaunt of the Page'. Whereas Scott depicts the old story of women suffering from male falsehood, Barrett Browning's ballad shows both sexes suffering from an oppressive ideology. Barrett Browning's adaptation of elements in [127/128] Marmion is also apparent in the long Gothic ballad-romance, 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie', retitled 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' in her 1844 Poems. Anticipating Charlotte Brontë in Villette, Barrett appropriates the figure of the buried nun popularized by Scott's Marmion and other works to represent intense psychic conflicts. Whereas Scott's central focus in Marmion is male and military, Barrett Browning's, like Brontë's after her, is on the conflicts of female desire with institutionalized repression that speak so powerfully in the interstices of his narrative. The Doppelgänger motif linking Onora, the heroine of 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary', with the defiant cursing nun who is buried alive for her sins makes this poem a 'subjective' ballad like 'The Romaunt of Margret', but it is a more daring work, too complex in its play of intertextual allusions to consider fully here. Along with Marmion, 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' also seems to draw on Faust, 'Christabel', Gottfried Bürger's 'Lenora', and possibly some of the Percy ballads, fusing elements from these texts in a highly original way with Barrett's own innovations, among them the heroine's dream, which she herself thought of as 'rather original in its manner' (BC 6:276). Any analysis of 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' is further complicated by the extensive revisions made in the poem after its initial publication in the 1840 Findens', including the change of the heroine's name from Lenora (a direct link with Bürger's ballad) to Onora.
'Rhyme of the Duchess May' also reflects Barrett's adaptation of motifs from Bürger's 'Lenora', in this case, as we have seen, creating a connection readily detected by the Westminster reviewer Sarah Flower Adams. By echoing Lenora's swift, dark gallop to the bridal bed of the grave with the ghost of her slain lover, Barrett subtly foreshadows the fate of the [128/129] orphan Duchess May and her newly wed husband Sir Guy of Linteged as they flee to his castle, evading her guardian, the Earl of Leigh and the cousin whose hand in marriage she spurns: 'Fast and fain the bridal train along the night-storm rod [sic] amain' (l. 89). Reminiscent of 'Lenora' too, 'The Duchess May' depicts what a critic in the North British Review aptly described as a 'dark bridal' concluding with a 'double death-ride' (527). Facing certain defeat after a fourteen-day siege by the Leighs in which his castle has 'seethed in blood' (l. 43), the anguished Sir Guy seeks to save the lives of his loyal men by riding from his castle tower to a sacrificial death. Against his will, he is accompanied by his young bride, who leaps into the saddle with him at the last minute. Reviewers were especially taken by this spectacular and novel climax, which Mermin astutely interprets as 'in effect a bold, bizarre sexual consummation' (93) — even if it does occur three months after the Duchess' actual marriage to Sir Guy.
'Rhyme of the Duchess May' adapts situations and scenes from the old Scottish ballad 'Edom o'Gordon' as well as Bürger's 'Lenora', although its sacrificial death leap was probably suggested by Benjamin Haydon's painting, Curtius Leaping into the Gulf (BC 6:208-9). The hero of 'Edom o'Gordon' is not the brutal border-raider referred to in the title, but the fiercely loyal wife of a Scottish lord who takes a stand on the castle walls and valiantly resists Gordon and his men in her husband's absence. The traces of 'Edom o'Gordon' in 'Rhyme of the Duchess May' thus once again reveal Barrett Browning's interest in the 'warrior women' heroines of the 'old burning ballads'. As in the case of 'The Romaunt of the Page', however, she once again significantly revises the ballad plot she most conspicuously echoes in 'Rhyme of the Duchess May'. Most notably, she rejects the futile and passive [129/130] sacrifice that occurs in 'Edom o'Gordon' when the Scottish lord's daughter is lowered over the walls in a sheet and spitted on Gordon's spear. Instead, she depicts a more active and heroic sacrificial leap on the part of the Duchess May, whom she made more forceful and wilful in revising the manuscript draft of the poem. Other significant revisions in the draft intensify and complicate the psychological and narrative conflict between the Duchess May and Sir Guy in ways that make Sir Guy a prototype of Romney in Aurora Leigh.
Deborah Byrd suggests that Victorian women poets like Barrett Browning turned to the Middle Ages because it was envisioned 'as a time in which at least some women had control over their property and destmy and the courage to venture into the "male" arenas of war and politics' (33). There is much truth in this. The women Barrett Browning encountered in the Percy ballads and even in Scott's romances were not yet confined by what Mary Poovey identifies as the cult of the 'proper lady'. In fact, in its frankly physical depiction of strong, heroic, passionate heroines, the traditional ballad, that 'Cinderella' among the Muses, very often was not the bashful maiden Hales and Furnivall quaintly imagined. Nevertheless, Barrett Browning was no celebrator of the often brutal and violent gender and human relations that prevailed in the Middle Ages when a 'black chief was 'half knight, half sheep-lifter' — like Edom o'Gordon and his kind — and a 'beauteous dame' was 'half chattel and half queen' (Aurora Leigh 5:195-96). In medieval ballads like 'The Romaunt of the Page', and 'Rhyme of the Duchess May', she dramatIzes the crudely overt power structures of the society that also produced the chivalric idealization of women. Thus the younger Lord Leigh threatens to [130/131] take the Duchess May in marriage over the 'altar' of her husband's corpse, seizing her hand and the gold it brings just as he seizes the sword in order to prevail.
Barrett Browning's ballads after 1844 represent contemporary rather than medieval scenes. Her often noted progression from medieval to modern subjects is manifested not only in 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship', but also in the unfinished ballad, 'The Princess Marie' in the 'Sonnets Notebook' in the Armstrong Browning Library. 'The Princess Marie' focuses on the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France. Phillip Sharp, who supplies a helpful account of this ballad's historical context, along with a rather unreliable transcription of the manuscript, describes 'The Princess Marie' as a 'domestic poem about a head of state' (169). But what really seems to have aroused Barrett Browning's interest in the Princess Marie was not her relation to Louis Philippe, but her skill in sculpture and the human cost of her devotion to her art. 'The Princess Marie' is thus not only a ballad in which Barrett turns to contemporary subjects, but also one anticipating her focus on the woman-artist in Aurora Leigh.
Although they move farther away from their prototypes in the old English and Scottish ballads and the narrative verse of the Romantic revival, most of Barrett Browning's later ballads continue to exhibit the distinguishing features I have dwelt upon in this chapter: the ironic manipulation of traditional ballad plots and motifs (often through narrative reversals or doublings); the focus on female subjectivity and on the conflicts created by female desire; and the exploration of connections between the 'female plots' shaping women's lives and the gender plots of encompassing ideologies. The female perspective, complicated by lingering ironies, is apparent in the deceptively simple 'Amy's Cruelty', for instance, where Barrett Browning [131/132] explores female as well as male possessiveness in love. The manipulation of traditional ballad conventions is perhaps most evident in the often praised 'Lord Walter's Wife'. Like 'The Not-browne Mayd', 'Lord Walter's Wife' contains elements of the traditional debate or flyting match concerning female constancy. Yet typically, Barrett Browning subverts conventional expectations by dramatizing the contradictions and sexual dou ble standard in male perceptions of women and by showing a man tested and found wanting, not the woman he flirts with and condemns.
In their representation of strong, transgressive women and their paradoxical combination of the medieval and the modern, Barrett Browning's ballads contributed to the nineteenth-century ballad tradition in ways that remain largely unexplored today. Several Victorian critics noted the impact of her medieval ballads on Pre-Raphaelite poets like D. G. Rossetti. In 1900, Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke similarly observed that 'Rossetti and others of the preRaphaelite brotherhood' had followed Barrett Browning in writing 'modern ballads', 'archaic in diction and suggestion' yet striking 'new themes'. 'But her ballads were first', Porter and Clarke remind us. 'They are miracles of sympathetic reproduction of an old genre in new substance' (CW 2:xiii). Hayter suggests one reason why the influence of Barrett Browning on the Pre-Raphaelites was 'forgotten' in noting how critics after 1900 repeatedly apologized for or dismissed the many traces of Mrs Browning in the works of D. G. Rossetti and William Morris (231-32).
As long as this subtle work of cultural 'forgetting' remains unanalysed and unresisted, and as long as Barrett Browning's ballads continue to be excluded from standard anthologies and surveys of Victorian poetry, there will be a missing link in the history of the [132/133] ballad revival — that movement that continues to shape the work of many poets and singers in our own century. Bob Dylan, whose 'Desolation Row' is now studied alongside T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', seems very unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet Dylan and his many followers seem drawn to the ballad form for some of the same reasons she was. Like Barrett Browning, Dylan recognizes the power of ballad stories with the people. Like her, he has often written in the tradition of the politicized broadside ballad. Like her, he exploits ironic twists in plotting ('twists of fate') as sites for exploring psychological and ideological conflict. And like Barrett Browning, Dylan — as 'Desolation Row' evinces — transforms the ballad form into a cultural palimpsest by intensifying its intertextuality. All of these features of Barrett Browning's balladry helped to prepare her for the writing of Aurora Leigh.
Last modified 1 June 2014