lizabeth Barrett Browning was a respected working poet for many years before her courtship and marriage to Robert Browning, yet it seems that her memory is most often reduced to the phrase, "How do I love thee." The secret epistolary romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, followed by their controversial elopement and fairytale ending of a happy marriage complete with child has fascinated readers from her contemporaries to the present. The work that most symbolizes this reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet, in the minds of her time period and still some today, is "Sonnets from the Portuguese." This 1850 addition to her collection, Poems, earned her both the highest praise and later, dismissal, based on a biographical interpretation of her work.
The love story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning began in 1845 when Robert wrote to Elizabeth in praise of her poetry. His admiration for Barrett as a poet was not unusual, "for Elizabeth Barrett was a famous and respected writer whose work was considered learned, innovative, obscure, and difficult as well as expressive and moving" (Mermin 351). After twenty months of correspondence and meetings, they eloped and moved to Italy. During the time of their courtship Barrett began the sonnet sequence, beginning immediately after their first meeting and chronicling her reactions to their relationship. She did not reveal the poems to Robert until thee years after the marriage and the birth of their son (Adams xvi).
For the Victorian reader, the sonnets were the epitome of appropriate poetry for women to write because they showed a woman in her best role — loving and expressing sentiments of love. The popular mythologized story of how Elizabeth first presented the poems to Robert is one example of why her poems were loved in her own time period. Edmund Gosse's introduction to the 1894 edition of Sonnets tells the reader a fictitious tale; that Elizabeth embarrassedly slipped up behind her husband and "held him by the shoulder to prevent his turning to look at her, and . . . pushed a packet of papers into the pocket of his coat. She told him to read that, and to tear it up if he did not like it; and then she fled again to her own room" (qtd. in Mermin 359). Afterward, she was embarrassed to have the sonnets published. To further the theme of embarrassment, it is theorized that the title, "Sonnets from the Portuguese", was selected to make the content seem less intimately personal (Stack xii), using the guise of a translation of another poet's work ("The Style and Work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning"). However, the title was actually a reference to a term of endearment Robert had for Elizabeth, my little Portuguese, a reference to her dark complexion ("The Style and Work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning"). Despite the fantasy tale of the presentation of the poems, the reality was a lot less embarrassed and therefore a lot less appealing to the Victorian audience. In 1864, Browning explained the story behind the sonnets, especially the delay in the presentation of the poems:
all this delay, because I happened early to say something against putting one's love into verse: then again, I said something else on the other side . . . and next morning she said hesitatingly "Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?" — and then — "There they are, if you care to see them." . . . How I see the gesture, and hear the tones . . . Afterward the publishing them was through me . . . there was a trial at covering it a little by leaving out one sonnet which had plainly a connexion with the former works: but it was put in afterwards when people chose to pull down the mask which, in old days, people used to respect at a masquerade. But I never cared. [qtd. in Mermin 359]
Despite the fact that Browning's explanation was published before Gosse's, Gosse's was published and continued to be quoted and reprinted. The myth had more appeal to the Victorians than did the reality. This story of fairytale verses reality exemplifies how biography — or in this case, pseudo-biography — distorted the reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet and the "Sonnets." As in this example, the "Sonnets" fascinated readers because of the fairytale associated with them, not the text itself.
The story of the publication illustrates what the Victorians loved about "Sonnets" — the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The earliest reactions to the poems, in 1850, were not very favorable. The poems were met with reticence, not praise, and the sonnets' success would not come until later, when her biographical connection to the poems was known (Lootens 126). Many early biographies of Barrett Browning simply evaluated her as a poet and barely mention the "Sonnets" (Lootens 129). However, after Barrett Browning's death, more biographical details of her life, including her courtship and marriage to Browning, became known, and new biographies that contained these details changed the perception of Barrett Browning's Sonnets as well as her literary career.
In 1861, an article from the Edinburgh Review on Barrett Browning stated:
One of the most peculiar characteristics of modern literary taste is the interest that readers find, not so much in the positive beauty and attractiveness of the works of a poet, as in the study of the character from which they spring. This feeling is excited not only by that love of psychological and individual analysis which is a growth of modern times, but also by the spectacle of an enthusiastic nature remaining courageously and unweariedly true to its own aspirations. ["The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning" 513]
This statement sums up the motivation for the praise of "Sonnets." Readers of the period liked a biographical connection to poetry, and they found Barrett Browning's biographical details particularly exciting, in part because they suited the period's concept of what female poets should write.
As biographical detail about Barrett Browning became known, she and the sonnets were read more and more from a biographical perspective. In an 1862 article by C. B. Conant, which compares the "Sonnets" to Aurora Leigh, describes them as superior to her novel-poem because the true story is more interesting than the imagined tale. The sonnets, Conant claims, are "without competition, the finest love poems in our language, and afford lessons from which every disappointed, unsatisfied heart—every unbeliever in the peculiar greatness of womanhood, every one unmindful of its power to solace and support the soul of man—may gain peace, hope, and the strengthening of faith" (353). The poems represent what the role of a woman is, to love, and speak from authority, being written by a woman. Conant goes on to say that "in finding her mate, she found the solution of the life-riddle that had perplexed her, and at which she had guessed so adventurously. Nothing else is so remarkable in these life-throbs of sonnets, as the sweetness of their humility" (353). Here, the poems are interpreted and valued based on biography as seen from the critic's expectations about gender. Of all her works, the "Sonnets" have the most importance simply because they tells the tale of her own love story, which was her "life-riddle" that the poems finally solved. Many Victorian readers believed that the function of a woman was "not to write, not to act, not to be famous—but to love" (qtd. in Stephenson 69). If a woman were going to write, to write about love and loving would be the most appropriate choice and therefore the best received.
The man responsible for making the greatest connection between "Sonnets" and Barrett Browning's biography, resulting the period of her highest praise, was Edmund Clarence Stedman. In his biographical article, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (1873), his depiction of Barrett Browning raises her to sainthood: "there are some poets whom we picture to ourselves as surrounded with aureolas, who are clothed in so pure an atmosphere that when we speak of them—though with a critical purpose and in this exacting age—our language must express that tender fealty which sanctity and exaltation compel from all mankind" (qtd. in Lootens 136). As both "England's greatest female poet" and the "most inspired woman poet of history," Barrett Browning attained sainthood not just as a poet but also as a wife — based on the love story told in "Sonnets" (Lootens 137). Barrett Browning's genius developed best in her "Sonnets" because, Stedman believed, to love is the greatest role for Victorian women. The connection between love, marriage, and literary genius was described extensively by Stedman, who asserted that "just as the 'chief event in the life of Elizabeth Barrett was her marriage,' the 'height' of her literary achievements was the Sonnets" (Lootens 139).
Because Stedman wrote several years after her death, he included much more of her love affair and elopement in his biography than had previously been explored, and this new information helped stoke others' interest in the poet and specifically in the poems from "Sonnets."
In a biographical piece appearing in The Cornhill Magazine in 1874, George Barnett Smith places Barrett Browning among the top three or four poets of England, claiming that,
after Shakespeare, we should be inclined to maintain that she is the equal of any. For proof of this, let the reader turn to her "Sonnets from the Portuguese", which, under a disguised name, are her own sonnets . . . . They are certainly equal to all of Wordsworth's and most of Milton's. [485-56]
The once overlooked "Sonnets" now represent Barrett Browning's best work because they are "her own sonnets" — that is, biographical. The value of the poems lies in their representing a woman's perspective on love. "Truly autobiographical, indeed, are these confessions; the seal of genuine experience is upon each one with its alternating hopes and fears, and its unfolding of a woman's heart" (487). Later he states that in these "psychological poems . . . we feel that we have done more towards grasping the character of the poet than we are able to do by an intimate acquaintance with all her other works" (488). Clearly the defining characteristic of excellence in these poems is the autobiographical connection, knowing the poet and knowing her woman's heart.
As time passed, Barrett Browning's life became reduced more and more to the "Sonnets" and to love. K. M. Rowland wrote in 1884 that "in that matchless series of sonnets through which Mrs. Browning has chanted her life's apotheosis, we learn all we need to know of a poet's wooing and a poet's winning" (555). Here, her entire life has become reduced to the pursuit of love. Later, in 1887, William Herridge said, "the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning are so evidently subjective that some analysis of her character becomes necessary in order to understand them" (607). Of Sonnets he said, "no one can read these Sonnets without being stimulated to a truer chivalry and a more profound appreciation of the sacred mystery of a woman's love. They are the work of a poetess in the full maturity of her powers" (614). Her power is writing as a woman about a woman's ultimate job, love.
As the "Sonnets" became more and more popular, they were valued less and less as poems and more as relics of a fascinating love story (Lootens 146). Their main attraction lay in the biography that surrounding the poems, not in the content of the poems. Ironically, upon the publication of the love letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, the reception of the poems would change and what once made the poems great now devalued the poems.
In 1899 the Brownings' son Penini published the correspondence from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett's courtship. Barrett Browning, as a poet, was already entrenched in a limited, fantasized view based on her biography, but after the publication of the letters she was "subsequently reconstructed as the frail chaise-lounge-bound invalid" ("Introduction: A Poet Lost and Regained" 11). Some felt that the letters did not need to be published because they were "very intimate" and "very long," as well as overly simplistic, with "little variety of sentiment, and not even a lovers' quarrel over the whole twenty months" ("Browning Love-Letters" 736). There was some level of controversy over the letters. Some believed it was a violation of rights to privacy to publish the letters. Others did not like the way Robert Browning whisked Elizabeth Barrett away from under her father's nose, and they felt that he could have been more honest and asked for her hand in marriage (Lootens 148). However, the love letters did complete the love story with which everyone was obsessed, and so, they became popular.
The problem for Barrett Browning's reputation was that as the letters became more popular, the original text that earned her praise, the "Sonnets from the Poertugese," decreased in popularity. She became valued for her love, and the love letters better depicted that love better than did the sonnets. One article from 1906 stated that "it is the person, not the poet, who lives most," and "her poetry as poetry is imperfect. She is an incomplete artist, but a complete woman; and it is as a complete woman that she will stand and endure" (qtd. in Lootens 153). Barrett Browning is still being valued for her love as a woman, but now her poetry is not associated with her value. The "Sonnets" are no longer necessary as a document of her love because they have been replaced with the more autobiographical and historically accurate love letters. In another attack on "Sonnets," Elizabeth Porter Gould, who defends Barrett Browning's love letters as a blessing to the world, denigrates the poems as the sinful version of the letters. According to Gould, the letters were composed with honesty and without the intent to publish. The sonnets are a lesser version of the story (Lootens 153-54).
The eventual rejection of the "Sonnets" does not surprise Dorothy Mermin. In her essay, "The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sonnets From the Portuguese,'" she argues that embarrassment is the key factor why Sonnets fell out of fashion. According to her, it was not the letters that caused people to feel discomfort with the poems, but the content of the poems themselves. She notes that the poems and the letters overlap in several ways, such as her address to the lover as "Dear," "Dearest," and "Beloved," more of an epistolary address than an address to a courtly lover, the references to pet names of her childhood, and the exchange of locks of hair. These details do not bother the reader in the letters, but "the events of courtship as a Victorian woman experienced them don't seem to belong in sonnets — we haven't see them there before, have we? — so they must be personal, particular, trivial. We are offended by the publication, implicit in the act of writing poems, of what we feel should be kept private" (Mermin 358). The pouring out of emotion in the love letters, private documents to be shared between two lovers, violate our senses less because letters are appropriate for that type of writing and emotion. Writing about courtly love and from the female perspective in the sonnet form is offensive because it is not the sphere of a Victorian woman, and by placing herself in that sphere, Barrett Browning has made her reader uncomfortable.
Other modern writers find the connection between the "Sonnets" and the love letters to be important in a new way of reading the Sonnets. The poems had not been read as poems for quite some time after Barrett Browning became so popular for her writing as an element of her biography. Many believed that a reader needs to go back to the poems and the letters and examine them together to reconstruct meaning. According to Angela Leighton, Barrett Browning's biography has less impact on the "Sonnets" than the letters. Leighton sees a connection between the poems and the letters as a "literary performance" between two "highly written" texts (220). "To read the Sonnets afresh, in conjunction with the letters, is to become aware of an intricately answering and over-wrought writing of love" (221). The letters take the form of a dialogue between Barrett and Browning, in which both explore their own feelings in words. The "Sonnets" are Barrett Browning's own reflections outside of the dialogue. "The 'Sonnets from the Portuguese,' in particular, elaborate may of the anxieties of the letters about the possibility of communicating the heart's true feelings" (221). The letters are the communication between two people and the sonnets are the communication of one woman trying to articulate love.
Another way the poems and letters work together is that both utilize the conventions of courtly love and challenge them from a gender perspective. In both the letters and the poems Barrett Browning, speaking from a woman's perspective, breaks the silence of the traditional female role of simply listening or receiving adoration ("'How do I Love Thee?': Love and Marriage" 145). Another overlap between the poems and the letters is the echoing of words—Barrett and Browning continually echo each other's words in the letters and Barrett Browning brings the echo into the poems ("'How do I Love Thee?': Love and Marriage" 147).
The similarities and overlaps do not mean that Barrett Browning was simply rehashing the same sentiments from the letters in the poems. One example of how the letters and poems differ is in the giving of a lock of hair, which is played out differently in the poems than the letters. The letters reveal elements of sexual tension and sexual yielding in the dialogue. Browning asks Barrett to give him something he's dared to think of asking for, something precious, a lock of hair. She reveals that giving a lock of hair is something she's only done for her nearest relatives, and she thinks that she might be too prudish to give it to him, but she yields. There is a longing in his request and a coyness in her response that exudes sexuality (Stephenson 80). In the sonnet version of this episode (sonnet 18), the tone is completely different and the giving of the lock of hair is devoid of sexual tension. However, in the second sonnet where the speaker receives her lover's hair in return (sonnet 19), the tone has become joyful. This retelling is a new interpretation of her experience based on her own reflection, not a dialogue between she and Browning (Stephenson 81-82). The letters shed light on the poems, but the poems are not simply another version of the letters, but instead are a separate, personal tale of love. What is most notable, however, is the fact that critics still evaluate "Sonnets" based on biography rather than evaluating them as poems. This is not to say that no one is reading "Sonnets" for the poetic value but that the trend of biographical interpretation has not ended.
The compelling love story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning attracts modern readers as much as it did Victorians. Everyone loves a true love story. However, biography and literature must be separated to get a true sense of the "Sonnets from the Portuguese". The biography and letters were irresistible for the Victorians and still are today, but the pomes have been read in this way for about 150 years; it is time for a new reading.
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Last modified 4 May 2005