Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
IT is interesting to step back sixty years into the lives of Miss Mitford and her “dear young friend Miss Barrett,” when the -esses of “authoresses” and “poetesses” and “editresses” and “hermitesses” make the pages sibilant; when ‘Books of Beauty,’ and ‘Keepsakes,’ and the extraordinary methods of “Finden’s Tableaux” make us wonder that literature survived; when Mr. Kenyon, taking Miss Mitford “to the giraffes and the Diorama,” called for “Miss Barrett, a hermitess in Gloucester Place, who reads Greek as I do French, who has published some translations from Æschylus, and some most striking poems,”—“Our sweet Miss Barrett! to think of virtue and genius is to think of her.” Of her own life Mrs. Browning writes:—“As to stories, my story amounts to the knife-grinder’s, with nothing at all for a catastrophe. A bird in a cage would have as good a story; most of my events and nearly all my intense pleasure have passed in my thoughts.”  1
  She was born at Burn Hall, Durham, and passed a happy childhood and youth in her father’s country house at Hope End, Herefordshire. She was remarkably precocious, reading Homer in the original at eight years of age. She said that in those days “the Greeks were her demigods. She dreamed more of Agamemnon than of Moses, her black pony.” “I wrote verses very early, at eight years old and earlier. But what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will, and remained with me.” At seventeen years of age she published the ‘Essay on Mind,’ and translated the ‘Prometheus’ of Æschylus. Some years later the family removed to London, and here Elizabeth, on account of her continued delicate health, was kept in her room for months at a time. The shock following on the death of her brother, who was drowned before her eyes in Torquay, whither she had gone for rest, completely shattered her physically. Now her life of seclusion in her London home began. For years she lay upon a couch in a large, comfortably darkened room, seeing only the immediate members of her family and a few privileged friends, and spending her days in writing and study, “reading,” Miss Mitford says, “almost every book worth reading in almost every language.” Here Robert Browning met her. They were married in 1846, against the will of her father. Going abroad immediately, they finally settled in Florence at the Casa Guidi, made famous by her poem bearing the same name. Their home became the center of attraction to visitors in Florence, and many of the finest minds in the literary and artistic world were among their friends. Hawthorne, who visited them, describes Mrs. Browning as “a pale, small person, scarcely embodied at all, at any rate only substantial enough to put forth her slender fingers to be grasped, and to speak with a shrill yet sweet tenuity of voice. It is wonderful to see how small she is, how pale her cheek, how bright and dark her eyes. There is not such another figure in the world, and her black ringlets cluster down in her neck and make her face look whiter.” She died in Florence on the 30th of June, 1861, and the citizens of Florence placed a tablet to her memory on the walls of Casa Guidi.  2
  The life and personality of Elizabeth Barrett Browning seem to explain her poetry. It is a life “without a catastrophe,” except perhaps to her devoted father. And it is to this father’s devotion that some of Mrs. Browning’s poetical sins are due; for by him she was so pampered and shielded from every outside touch, that all the woes common to humanity grew for her into awful tragedies. Her life was abnormal and unreal,—an unreality that passed more or less into everything she did. Indeed, her resuscitation after meeting Robert Browning would mount into a miracle, unless it were realized that nothing in her former life had been quite as woful as it seemed. That Mrs. Browning was “a woman of real genius,” even Edward Fitzgerald allowed; and in speaking of Shelley, Walter Savage Landor said, “With the exception of Burns, he [Shelley] and Keats were inspired with a stronger spirit of poetry than any other poet since Milton. I sometimes fancy that Elizabeth Barrett Browning comes next.” This is very high praise from very high authority, but none too high for Mrs. Browning, for her best work has the true lyric ring, that spontaneity of thought and expression which comes when the singer forgets himself in his song and becomes tuneful under the stress of the moment’s inspiration. All of Mrs. Browning’s work is buoyed up by her luxurious and overflowing imagination. With all its imperfections of technique, its lapses of taste and faults of expression, it always remains poetry, throbbing with passion and emotion and rich in color and sound. She wrote because she must. Her own assertions notwithstanding, one cannot think of Mrs. Browning as sitting down in cold blood to compose a poem according to fixed rules of art. This is the secret of her shortcomings, as it is also the source of her strength, and in her best work raises her high above those who, with more technical skill, have less of the true poet’s divine fire and overflowing imagination.  3
  So in the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ written at a time when her woman’s nature was thrilled to its very depths by the love of her “most gracious singer of high poems,” and put forth as translations from another writer and tongue—in these her imperfections drop away, and she soars to marvelous heights of song. Such a lyric outburst as this, which reveals with magnificent frankness the innermost secrets of an ardently loving woman’s heart, is unequaled in literature. Here the woman-poet is strong and sane; here she is free from obscurity and mannerism, and from grotesque rhymes. She has stepped out from her life of visions and of morbid woes into a life of wholesome reality and of “sweet reasonableness.” Their literary excellence is due also to the fact that in the sonnet Mrs. Browning was held to a rigid form, and was obliged to curb her imagination and restrain her tendency to diffuseness of expression. Mr. Saintsbury goes so far as to say that the sonnet beginning—
  “If thou wilt love me, let it be for naught
Except for love’s sake only—”
does not fall far short of Shakespeare.
  ‘Aurora Leigh’ gives rise to the old question, Is it advisable to turn a three-volume novel into verse? Yet Landor wrote about it:—“I am reading a poem full of thought and fascinating with fancy—Mrs. Browning’s ‘Aurora Leigh.’ In many places there is the wild imagination of Shakespeare…. I am half drunk with it. Never did I think I should have a good draught of poetry again.” Ruskin somewhere considered it the greatest poem of the nineteenth century, “with enough imagination to set up a dozen lesser poets”; and Stedman calls it “a representative and original creation: representative in a versatile, kaleidoscopic presentment of modern life and issues; original, because the most idiosyncratic of its author’s poems. An audacious speculative freedom pervades it, which smacks of the New World rather than the Old…. ‘Aurora Leigh’ is a mirror of contemporary life, while its learned and beautiful illustrations make it almost a handbook of literature and the arts…. Although a most uneven production, full of ups and downs, of capricious or prosaic episodes, it nevertheless contains poetry as fine as its author has given us elsewhere, and enough spare inspiration to set up a dozen smaller poets. The flexible verse is noticeably her own, and often handled with as much spirit as freedom.” Mrs. Browning herself declared it the most mature of her works, “and the one into which my highest convictions upon life and art have entered.” Consider this:—
  “For ’tis not in mere death that men die most:
And after our first girding of the loins
In youth’s fine linen and fair broidery,
To run up-hill and meet the rising sun,
We are apt to sit tired, patient as a fool,
While others gird us with the violent bands
Of social figments, feints, and formalisms,
Reversing our straight nature, lifting up
Our base needs, keeping down our lofty thoughts,
Head downwards on the cross-sticks of the world.
Yet He can pluck us from that shameful cross.
God, set our feet low and our foreheads high,
And teach us how a man was made to walk!”
  Or this:—
  “I’ve waked and slept through many nights and days
Since then—but still that day will catch my breath
Like a nightmare. There are fatal days, indeed,
In which the fibrous years have taken root
So deeply, that they quiver to their tops
Whene’er you stir the dust of such a day.”
              “Passion is
But something suffered after all—
.  .  .  .  .  While Art
Sets action on the top of suffering.”
  And this:—
              “Nothing is small!
No lily-muffled hum of summer-bee
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot but proves a sphere:
.  .  .  .  .  Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”
  Among Mrs. Browning’s smaller poems, ‘Crowned and Buried’ is, notwithstanding serious defects of technique, one of the most virile things she has written; indeed, some of her finest lines are to be found in it. In ‘The Cry of the Children’ and in ‘Cowper’s Grave’ the pathos is most true and deep. ‘Lord Walter’s Wife’ is an even more courageous vindication of the feminine essence than ‘Aurora Leigh’; and her ‘Vision of Poets’ is said to “vie in beauty with Tennyson’s own.” The fine thought and haunting beauty of ‘A Musical Instrument,’ with its matchless climax, need not be dwelt on.  9
  During her fifteen years’ residence in Florence she threw herself with great enthusiasm into Italian affairs, and wrote some political poems of varying merit, whose interest necessarily faded away when the occasion passed. But among those poems inspired by the struggle for freedom, ‘Casa Guidi Windows’ comes close to the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ and ‘Aurora Leigh,’ and holds an enduring place for its high poetry, its musical, sonorous verse, and the sustained intellectual vigor of composition. Her volume of ‘Last Poems’ contains, among much inferior matter, some of her finest and most touching work, as ‘A Musical Instrument,’ ‘The Forced Recruit,’ and ‘Mother and Poet.’ Peter Bayne says of her in his ‘Great Englishwomen’:—“In melodiousness and splendor of poetic gift Mrs. Browning stands … first among women. She may not have the knowledge of life, the insight into character, the comprehensiveness of some, but we must all agree that a poet’s far more essential qualities are hers: usefulness, fervor, a noble aspiration, and above all a tender, far-reaching nature, loving and beloved, and touching the hearts of her readers with some virtue from its depths. She seemed even in her life something of a spirit; and her view of life’s sorrow and shame, of its hearty and eternal hope, is something like that which one might imagine a spirit’s to be.” Whether political, or sociological, or mystical, or sentimental, or impossible, there is about all that Mrs. Browning has written an enduring charm of picturesqueness, of romance, and of a pure enthusiasm for art. “Art for Art,” she cries,
  “And good for God, himself the essential Good!
We’ll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect,
Although our woman-hands should shake and fail.”
  This was her achievement—her hands did not fail!  11
  Her husband’s words will furnish, perhaps, the best conclusion to this slight study:—“You are wrong,” he said, “quite wrong—she has genius; I am only a painstaking fellow. Can’t you imagine a clever sort of angel who plots and plans, and tries to build up something,—he wants to make you see it as he sees it, shows you one point of view, carries you off to another, hammering into your head the thing he wants you to understand; and whilst this bother is going on, God Almighty turns you off a little star—that’s the difference between us. The true creative power is hers, not mine.”  12

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