lthough in writing Aurora Leigh, E.B. Browning may have simply been trying to establish herself within a tradition of the masters of the Victorian long poem, Patmore nonetheless seemed to find her work more influenced than influential. Whereas Patmore clearly held his friend Browning's wife in high literary esteem, he did not overlook the almost overly striking similarities which Aurora Leigh showed to his own Angel in the House . In a letter to Allingham dated February 18, 1957, the same year in which Aurora Leigh was finally published, Patmore wrote of Barret Browning's new poem:
Aurora Leigh is a strange book for a modest sensible little woman like Mrs. Browning to have written. It is full of "fine things" of course; but I am inexpressibly sick of such under such conditions. See "Recent Poets" in "E. Rev." [Edinburgh Review cited in Champneys, II 185].
The article to which Patmore refers in this passage was one that he wrote for The Edinburgh Review in the previous year, and although it did not explicitly refer to E.B. Browning (apart from a side note that categorized her and her husband as two writers who had finally risen above the amateur status of the new poet), Patmore was undoubtedly trying convince Allingham abouty suspiciously plagiaristic qualities of Mrs. Browning's most recent work. In the article entitled "New Poets" from the October 1856 issue of The Edinburgh, Patmore complained of the tendency which new poets had of incorporating what he deemed to be "striking things" into their verse. These peculiar moments of apparent genius and grandeur, he claimed, could easily attract the common, or average, reader to an otherwise ordinary style of verse and, therefore, instantly, though sometimes fleetingly, increase the up and coming poet's popularity. Nevertheless, argued Patmore, when the more astute or well-read reader looked closely at these apparently "striking" poetic moments, he or she would notice that they were, in fact, plagiarisms in their own right, metaphors, themes, or realizations borrowed from other recent or not so recent poets:
The temporary popularity of these poems among persons of some culture and understanding, seems partly explicable when we discover that these writings contain innumerable good things from the great and comparatively unread poets, diluted, disjointed, and vulgarized so as to enable them to strike a common order of apprehension. In all but one or two exceptions these works are tissues of gross, though perhaps unconscious plagiarism. For one person who is capable of appreciating a well sustained poetic flight there are a hundred who can derive a certain amount of pleasure from a good image or a well-turned line, when this effect is emphasized by isolation. Hence separate bright thoughts and images, which, in a great writer, make less popular effect, because they are the appropriate and subordinate parts of a whole, are received with enthusiastic admiration when they glitter one by one among the decorations of Mr. Smith's or Mr. Bailey's Christmas tree. [Oct. 1856 Edinburgh Review, p.345]
Whereas it might seem here that Patmore was advocating originality to the point of asking his contemporaries to dispose themselves of the natural and necessary patterns of poetic influence, Patmore's article, pointing to the group of nineteenth-century poets known as the "Spasmodics," in fact, made what he saw to be a very important distinction between proper literary allusion and mere plagiarism. Using John Keats as a modern example of a recently popularized poet, Patmore claimed that many of the new poets had been rabbing the only recently canonized writers of their poetic originality. Therefore, whereas it was only natural to find inspiration in one's literary predecessors, Patmore insisted that great poetry was original poetry in and of its ability to formulate new ideas and metaphors independent of those already characteristic of its own generation. As his essays from the Principles in Art indicate, Patmore himself thus tried to create a kind of verse that could rise above the Romantic and Victorian tradition of love poetry based in transient desires and mere feminine idolatry. Hence, when Patmore referred Allingham to his article on the "New Poets," he was clearly reprimanding Browning's Aurora Leigh for plagiarizing his own only recently published work. Indeed, Patmore did have some grounds on which to be offended by Barrett Browning's new verse, for as I have noted above, the climactic moment of Aurora Leigh consisted, more or less, of a combination of Tennyson's epiphanic philosophy of the "soul in soul" from In Memoriam (published in 1850) and Patmore's poetic resolution of a transcendental and spiritual kind of romantic love from The Angle in the House (published in 1854). Consequently, for Patmore, these two types of transcendent love and grief were incompatible.
If the allusion that Patmore made in his letter to Allingham concerning his issues with E.B. Browning's Aurora Leigh is not enough evidence to prove that Patmore felt that she had plagiarized his own poetic masterpiece, we can also turn to another review of Barrett Browning's work that Patmore wrote for the North British Review. This article written in 1857, the same year of Aurora Leigh's publication, both subtly accused her of borrowing verse from other poets and linked her to his previously written article from the Edinburgh Review (1856):
Mrs. Browning's worst fault is her almost constant endeavor to be "striking." This tendency has deformed her volumes with scores of passages scarcely less offensive to true taste than above. Such passages are not only bad in themselves, but being as it were, the hypocrisy of art, they cast suspicion and discredit upon their context wherever they occur. [North British Review (1857): 239]
In referring here to her poetic exertions as "striking," Patmore was clearly characterizing her as a spasmodic — a fact demonstrated by his alluding to his well known earlier article on the "New Poets" in which he spoke of poetic plagiarism in terms of the author's attempt to include "striking things," or in other words, minor plagiarisms, into his or her verse. Although this passage from Patmore's article entitled "Mrs. Browning's Poems" clearly invokes Patmore's suspicion concerning the originality of Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, it seems unlikely that many readers would catch the very subtle and stinging allusion to Patmore's earlier article. Nonetheless, there was most likely one very important reader astute enough not to overlook such a vicious accusation — Robert Browning. A letter from Patmore to him dated much later than the publication of both the articles in The Edinburgh and the North British Review reveals a sudden rift in their relationship which began just after Patmore's literary jibe at Mrs. Browning. Apparently, Browning believed Patmore's criticism of his wife's poems was not measured enough, for in a letter dated October 13 1884, after her death, Patmore apologized to Browning:
It is long since I have received any letter giving me so much pleasure as is given me by that which I have just received from you. I had a sort of feeling that a passage of very course censure of your wife's poems, which was introduced into a review of mine in the "Edinburgh" by the Editor after I had seen and passed the proofs, had produced-- as it well might-- a coolness on your part. I did not explain it at the time, because I wished to preserve for a space the etiquette of anonymity; and, when that space was over, it seemed too late. It has always however been a matter of much regret to me that I let the matter pass; and so I feel greatly rejoiced that you yourself have so kindly opened the way to my words. [Champneys, I, 193]
When Patmore spoke to R. Browning of his article in The Edinburgh, he must have been referring to his essay on the "New Poets," for the only other reviews which Patmore wrote for this journal were on the subjects of arquitecture and Tennyson. It is, nonetheless, clear that Patmore supported E.B. Browning more than he criticized her. In a letter to Mrs. Gemmer dated February 9, 1863, he ranked her amongst the greatest Victorian female poets, and in the same article from the North British Review, he said of Aurora Leigh as a whole that despite its "artistic defects," it was "a work possessing so many of the highest excellencies." By "artistic defects," Patmore undoubtedly meant literary plagiarisms here, and his main issue with Aurora Leigh was concerned simply with where the poem converged with his own, by then only recently published, installments of The Angel in the House. For example,earlier on in the article Patmore wrote of Barrett Browning's Aurora:
Aurora Leigh would assuredly have been a more poetical work if it had made the question, "Do you agree with it?" and absurd one, and had only allowed of the question, "Do you or do you not understand it?" [North British Review (1857): 241]
From this comment, we can conclude that Patmore's issue with Barret Browning's Aurora Leigh was not simply that it plagiarized The Angel, but that it did so ineffectively. If we think for a moment about the implications of Patmore's above criticism, we recall the last lines of Felix's climactic prelude (see essay on Nuptial Love as the Ideal Subject), which not only marked Felix's departure from the earthly realm, but which challenged the reader both to embrace the divine mysteries of a transcendental love and to comprehend the subtle yet profound differences between passionate desire and nuptial union. Therefore, Patmore undeniably felt that E.B. Browning had not only rewritten his literary celebration of nuptial love but that she had robbed it of its forcefulness, and she had done so because she had abandoned its air of poetic and prophetic insight by trying too hard to place it on the level of a more common, social audience.
Although this last criticism of Patmore's concerning Aurora Leigh might initially appear unreasonable in lieu of Patmore's willingness to change both the poetic and the human outlook on love, it brings us to the primary distinction between Patmore's Angel and Browning's Aurora Leigh. As I have stated before, where Patmore diverged from both Carlyle and the Romantics was in his belief that a social poetry, or a poetry aimed at both social reform and the common man, was incompatible with the poet's ability to invoke a divine order. The poet's artistic gift was important because it allowed him to communicate hidden and supernatural mysteries to the reader. Nonetheless, according to Patmore, poets should never sacrifice their visions to the more earthly concerns of the common man. In other words, they should never place themselves on the level of — or in direct dialogue with — his or her reader. This theory of course directly contrasts both Carlyle's addresses to his reader and his call for a more socially-committed Victorian verse (see On Heroes and Hero Worship). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on the other hand, tried to write poetry within the Carlylean tradition, and Patmore in his article, "Mrs. Browning's Poems," not only took issue with her supposed attempts simultaneously to mimic both Carlyle, Tennyson, and himself but also attacked her hypocrisy by pointing out the very classist air that in fact pervaded her supposedly Carlylean poem.
Despite the effect of Patmore's criticisms of Elizabeth had on his relationship to the Brownings, his reviews of her were much fairer and more astute than many of those which Aurora Leigh received in the same year. In fact, most contemporary and modern criticism of Barrett Browning mirrored that of Patmore, for both nineteenth- and the twentieth-century critics tended to focus on earlier sections of Aurora Leigh without acknowledging the overall progression of the poem or the thematic implications of its climax. Like The Angel in the House, (see annotated bibliography coming soon) Aurora Leigh received criticism for its length, its paradoxes, and most importantly its static plot. In an article from Littell's Living Age (volume 52, 1857), one critic accused Browning of undertaking a poetic plan which was too "large" and too "complex." The characters, the critic insisted, did not develop nor did they grow out of any sort of mutual influence (this latter comment most likely was referring to Romney and Aurora). Of course, on the contrary, we have seen that Browning's Aurora, like Patmore's Felix, was a protagonist of development, a character in the spirit of a defined Kuntslerroman. Moreover, like twentieth-century Patmore critics, E.B. Browning's contemporary reviewers pigeonholed her for both her gender and for the premature and incomplete poetic conclusions which her protagonist set forth early on in Aurora Leigh. In the review cited above, the critic assumed that her work derived its influences predominately from other female writers such as Charlotte Bronte and Mrs. Gaskell, failing to acknowledge that the overall emphasis of the poem was actually rooted in the works of various male poets and essayists such as Patmore, R. Browning, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Carlyle.
Another reviewer from an 1857 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine (Volume 9, writer male but unknown) commended E.B. Browning for her feminine intellect and her overall support in pushing women to achieve outside of the domestic sphere. Whereas the article certainly sang Mrs. Browning's praises and relished in the spirit of the first half of Aurora Leigh, it nonetheless completely ignored the final and most significant book in the poem. Furthermore, E.B. Browning was of course subject to the classic Anglo-centrism of her time, and many of her contemporary critics instead of focusing on her actual poetry felt more passionately about her Italian heritage. In a review of Aurora Leigh from an 1861 issue of The Saturday Review, a critic wrote of Mrs. Browning: "Her illusions were probably fostered by the accident that she lived and thought in one country while she used the language of another." Whereas Patmore, upset by the clear connections between Aurora Leigh and The Angel in the House, may have irrationally criticized Mrs. Browning for her heavily influenced verse, he at least spared her from his often bitingly masculine Anglo-centrism which many of his other friends, predecessors, and contemporaries such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti were not so lucky to avoid. Despite his quibbles with E.B. Browning's poetic allusions, it is clear that Patmore still had a great appreciation for her verse, especially her sonnets, and even in the end for Aurora Leigh. More importantly, however, it is clear that both poets were striving to invoke similar philosophies of artistic vision and spiritual or transcendent love in their respective masterpieces.
Interestingly, both poets faced similar difficulties with the reception of their poems. Whereas both Barrett Browning and Patmore were immensely popular in their own time, particularly for their major works, it is unclear that this popularity stemmed from true appreciation of their poetic intentions. In fact, much of the praise if not only the criticism which the Angel and Aurora received from both Victorian and Modern critics seems to have been rooted in common misunderstandings and mis-readings. Whether or not Barrett Browning was concerned with such commentaries, Patmore's correspondences, particularly his later writings to Gerard Manley Hopkins, all reveal that the poet certainly took issue with many contemporary reviews of his work. In conclusion, both poets encountered the effects of writing poetry with strong autobiographical elements, and both grappled with the general readers' responses to the artful but perhaps too deeply imbedded nuances of the long Victorian poem.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Champneys, Basil. Memoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore. 2 vols. London, G. Bell & sons.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Patmore, Coventry. Principles in Art. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
Last updated 29 July 2004