Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Mary Stone | July 10, 2023
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB), born March 6, 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, and died June 29, 1861 in Florence, was a British poet, essayist and pamphleteer of the Victorian era.
Her parents, Edward Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke, had twelve children, eight boys and four girls, one of whom died when Elizabeth was eight. She began writing at an early age. Her interest lay in works of Greco-Latin and Hebrew antiquity read in the text. She also cultivated the great English, French, German and Italian classics.
Her life was turned upside down when, in her late teens, she was struck down by a paralysis, probably psychosomatic in origin, aggravated by the loss of her mother in 1828 and, above all, by the tragic death, in 1840, of her favorite brother, Edward. She became a recluse, living in her room at 50 Wimpole Street, London, with a father whose affection for his children was tyrannical, and whom he intended to keep celibate.
The poet Robert Browning, dazzled by the reading of a collection of her poems, began a correspondence with her that soon became amorous. After two years, the couple married clandestinely and fled to Italy, where they lived until Elizabeth’s death in 1861.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for two works, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in which she sings of her budding, then triumphant, love for Robert Browning, and Aurora Leigh, a long novel in verse in which she tackles historical, social and political issues, but also traces the personal, intellectual and moral journey of an artist claiming her femininity and fulfilling her vocation.
She is one of the major figures of Victorian poetry, a writer at once committed and lyrical, with an encyclopedic culture, who, as she writes in Aurora Leigh, applies herself to “analyzing, confronting and questioning” (” “), while expressing the turbulence or ecstasies of her heart.
Childhood and adolescence
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton was born on March 6, 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, County Durham. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, had made a fortune in Jamaica with the sugarcane plantations he had inherited, and in 1809 he bought Hope End Manor, Ledbury, Herefordshire, surrounded by some 203 hectares of land (500 acres), near the Malvern Hills.
These hills are part of Elizabeth’s cultural landscape, and she evokes them in some of her works, particularly in her so-called “country” poems, mentioned below (see § 3), and also in Aurora Leigh, where the heroine is sent to stay with a relative living in the area. Of them, she writes: “They are to me the hills of my childhood; for though I was born in County Durham, I was a very small child when I came into their neighborhood, and lived there until I was past twenty.
She began writing poems at an early age. The first appears to have been composed at the age of six or eight. The manuscript, in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, is dated 1812, but the number 2 has been added to a previously scratched one, so the date is open to question. His country poems, in any case, such as “The Lost Bower”, “Hector in the Garden” and “The Deserted Garden” refer to the forests and gardens of Hope End.
Elizabeth had a golden childhood, growing white roses, riding her pony and socializing with other families in the neighborhood. She took an interest in theater and staged plays with her eleven brothers and sisters, all of whom were curious and enamored of the arts. She is the eldest and, as such, has an almost maternal attitude towards this close-knit sibling group. All the Barrett children have little names: Elizabeth is “Ba”; her brother Edward is “Bro”. He was her favorite, and it was he who she later asked to accompany her to Torquay.
Elizabeth is a child with an inquisitive and alert mind. She read Shakespeare, the Iliad and Odyssey in Pope’s translation, the history of England, Greece and Rome, Milton’s Paradise Lost, all before the age of ten. By the age of twelve, she had written an epic poem, The Battle of Marathon, in four books of rhyming couplets. Her father had it self-published in 1819 when she was fourteen, and she later commented on this early work, saying. “Pope’s Homer done over again, or rather undone”. “).
Although she benefited from the lessons of her brother’s tutor, it was she who took the initiative in her own reading. During her teenage years, she studied most of the Greek and Latin authors in their original texts, as well as Dante’s Inferno. This intellectual appetite also led her to learn Hebrew, so that she could read the Old Testament from cover to cover. She also cultivates the writers of the Age of Enlightenment, Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary and deist, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
This awakening led her to concern herself with issues that were still taboo in Victorian England, such as human rights and, unusually, women’s rights, which she discussed in her correspondence with Mary Wollstonecraft, the kingdom’s first resolutely feminist writer, who in 1792 published Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Young maturity and illness
Mary Russell Mitford described her as she was in her youth: “A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam.” (“A slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sun beam”).
When she was in her early twenties, Elizabeth Barrett befriended two neighbors, two scholars of ancient Greek: Uvedale Price, theorist of the notion of the “picturesque”, who was well into his eighties and died a few years later, and Hugh Stuart Boyd, also of advanced age and blind. She kept up a regular correspondence with them, and it was Boyd who encouraged her to resume her studies of ancient Greece. On his recommendation, she devoted herself to Homer, Pindar, Aristophanes, the great tragics, Aeschylus in particular, whose Prometheus in Chains she translated, which was published in 1833, again by Mr. Barrett, and Sophocles. She also turned her attention to Christian Byzantine authors.
After a few years, she distanced herself intellectually from her mentor (with whom, however, she corresponded until his death) and pursued her work according to her own literary and philosophical tastes. Her intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was matched by a religious obsession she later described as “not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast”. This “enthusiasm” comes from the Methodist faith, shared by her family and in which her father plays a prominent role in Bible study associations and missionary activities.
In 1828, Mrs. Barrett died suddenly and was buried next to her daughter Mary, who had died at the age of four, in the cemetery of Ledbury’s St. Mary and All Angels parish church. According to Hugh Stuart Boyd’s correspondence, Elizabeth, then aged twenty-two, was so shocked by this bereavement that she lost all “the power of thinking”. Yet Mrs. Barrett’s influence on her children is not overriding: she appears as a mother in the shadow of her husband, who reigns supreme over the household.
The riots in Jamaica in the early 1830s mobilized the intelligentsia in England and the United States against the slave system. Groups such as the Quakers in North America and the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Great Britain played a decisive role in raising awareness through public petitions, boycott campaigns and the distribution of documents describing and sometimes illustrating the living conditions of slaves aboard slave ships and on plantations.
Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833. However, while the Slavery Abolition Act marked the end of the slave trade, it did not yet free the slaves already transported. This emancipation was progressive, bitterly negotiated in the British Parliament, and did not apply to possessions other than the West Indies (“the Caribbean”), such as India, Ceylon or St. Helena. In addition, different stages were established, depending on the particularities of the plantations and local commercial constraints. Finally, continental Europe lagged behind, with France following England’s example only in 1848, and the United States far from ready to change its system.
Elizabeth Barrett, a great admirer of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, embraced this struggle with passion and never ceased to defend the cause of total and definitive abolition, This explains why, in 1849, she published another poem on the subject, The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, a dramatic monologue about a raped slave who ends up killing her newborn white baby.
In any case, plantation troubles and abolition soon caused Edward Moulton Barrett’s Jamaican business to falter, and he was forced to sell his Hope End mansion. The family therefore changed residence three times between 1832 and 1837, without, it seems, becoming considerably impoverished. It was in Sidmouth, Devon, where the Barrett family lived for three years, that Elizabeth translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus in Chains in 1833.
Eventually, after moving to London and spending some time at Gloucester Place, Mr. Barrett and his children settled at 50 Wimpole Street in 1838. Elizabeth published The Seraphim and Other Poems that same year. This was the first collection to bear her name, and was considered the best work of her young maturity. She writes: “My present attempt is actually, and will be considered by others, more a trial of strength than either of my preceding ones” (À vrai dire, cette tentative est, et sera jugée par autrui comme une épreuve de force plus importante que n’importe quelle de celle qui l’ont précédées). Two years later, in an article devoted to contemporary women poets, The Quarterly Review criticizes The Seraphim with respect, without however granting its author a higher status than that which it attributes to Mrs Caroline Sheridan Norton, a poet and novelist whose name has disappeared from literary history.
Elizabeth Barrett’s arrival in London marks a turning point in her life. She continued to write and publish: The Romaunt of Margaret, The Romaunt of the Page, The Poet’s Vow and others. She corresponded with several celebrities of her time, including Walter Savage Landor (1777-1864), William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whom she met and described thus: “I was not at all disappointed in Wordsworth, although perhaps I should not have singled him out from the mutitude as a great man”, and above all to her best friend, the writer Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855), poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, “a sunny affectionate nature”.
However, her health was deteriorating, the cause of which was unknown. She had a fall from a pony at the age of fifteen, and may have suffered a slight cerebral haemorrhage. She had previously begun to suffer from “nervous” disorders and chronic insomnia, for which her doctor, Dr. Coker, had prescribed opium. Lung weakness” and even a lung abscess were also mentioned. This changed her life, as the disease never left her side.
To restore her health, and at her doctor’s insistence, she spends a few months in Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. This seaside resort enjoys a microclimate, and Devonshire is a county she knows from her previous residence in the village of Ledbury. She insists that her favorite brother, Edward (“Bro”), accompany her. Mr. Barrett disapproves, but does not object. Elizabeth enjoys hearing about his outings, as he dines and dances in town, swims offshore and sails, while she remains frozen in her weakness. But these moments of relative happiness come to an abrupt end on July 11, 1840, when Edward drowns with two friends while out at sea. Their bodies were not found until three days later. This tragedy left Elizabeth distraught and ill, to the point where it was impossible for her to talk about the accident or even mention her brother’s name.
She remained alone in Torquay for many months, but her state of prostration was such that, when she returned to London in a carriage specially designed for her, in which she could lie down, she took refuge in her room, lined with heavy green damask draperies and still darkened by the clump of ivy that, in summer, invaded the window that remained closed. She hardly ever goes out, and when she does, she is carried in a wheelchair. The opium she is prescribed only worsens her condition. Wracked by sadness and a sense of guilt that would follow her throughout her life (it was she who insisted that Edward, initially reluctant, accompany her to Torquay), the only company she seemed to enjoy was that of her golden cocker spaniel Flush, given to her by Mary Russell-Mitford. She refuses all visits other than those of her nearest and dearest and of one or two people. Among these is John Kenyon, a wealthy art lover and lover of letters, with a warm, jovial disposition. A distant cousin and childhood friend of her father, he will help Elizabeth when she meets Robert Browning.
Mr. Barrett is a man of authority who reigns as patriarch over his children, and is particularly protective of his weakened daughter. Unlike her sisters, she has no domestic chores and is free to cultivate her mind, correspond with literary luminaries and devote herself to poetry. Her father’s tyrannical affection is not only accepted by Elizabeth, who has immense respect for her, but a source of security and even gentleness. Together, they pray in the sick woman’s room at night, and it’s taken for granted from the outset that the family will never part, so meaningless does life away from the father seem. Later, Elizabeth, then married and living in Italy, wrote: “None of his children will ever marry without a break, which we all know, although he probably doesn’t”.
The solicitude that surrounded her, the devotion of her siblings, her father’s diligence – all this affection plunged her into a vicious circle of melancholy in which she seemed to wallow. My family was so accustomed to the idea of my perpetual life in this room,” she recounts in the same letter, “that, while my heart was devouring itself, their love for me was soothed, and, in the end, the evil became barely perceptible. We were all getting used to the thought of the grave: and I was buried. Even my poetry was something outside myself. The same theme is repeated in the third of the Portuguese Sonnets, where the “princely heart” is Robert Browning: “Different we are, O princely heart!
In her letter of March 20, 1845 to Robert Browning, however, she seems to have realized the incongruity of her state. She writes: “I lived only inwardly – or with sadness, for any strong emotion. it seemed as if I were standing on the edge of the world, without perspective , I began to think bitterly that I had remained blind in the temple . I was like a dying man who hadn’t read Shakespeare and it was too late. Don’t you understand that I’m at a considerable disadvantage, that I’m, in a way, like a blind poet?
Marriage to Robert Browning and flight to Italy
The poems she published in 1844 made her one of the kingdom’s most famous writers, and inspired Robert Browning to express his admiration for her. He was also flattered by Elizabeth’s excellent review in Lady Geraldine’s Courtship of her collection Bells and Pomegranates, which had fallen victim to the attacks of the literary world. Verses 163-164 read: “some Browning pomegranate, offering in its bosom, to whoever opens it and slices it in two halves, veins rich with the blood of humanity”. Thus, on January 10, 1845, he sent her an already bold letter, in which he wrote: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, in this act of addressing you, yourself, my feeling rises fully. Yes, it’s a fact that I love your verses with all my heart, and also that I love you.
Elizabeth, reporting the event to her friend Mrs James Martin, whom she had known in Colwall, exclaims: “Last night I had a letter from Browning, the poet, a letter that threw me into ecstasies, from Browning, the author of Paracelsus and the king of mystics”.
And so begins one of the most famous love letters in literary history.
At first, Elizabeth remains cautious, letting Browning know that she wishes him to forget that she is a woman (“being weary and jaded of vain gallantries, of which I had had my share, the more so perhaps because of my peculiar situation which rendered them of no consequence”). Then, despite her good intentions, she gradually gives way to teasing and elegant marivaudage. From a strictly literary corset, we move on to friendship, and after several months of prevarication, John Kenyon obtains permission from the recluse to arrange a meeting.
The first visit took place in May 1845: “Finally, I had to agree to receive him under conditions I had never received a stranger. I don’t know why, but with him, I couldn’t persist in my refusal. I received him, however, quite reluctantly. But he has a way of arranging things that I don’t have, a way of removing obstacles. He writes the most charming letters in the world. Finally, one day, he came.
Elizabeth, six years her senior and apparently an invalid, finds it hard to believe that this man, so vigorous and so well introduced to the intellectual world of the English capital, could love her so much, and this nagging doubt is expressed in the first of a series of poems written in the two years following their meeting, the Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Edward Moulton-Barrett has complete confidence in his paternal authority, which keeps him away from suspicion, and his business keeps him in the City most of the time. Browning multiplies his visits. Virginia Woolf, in Flush, a biography of Elizabeth in which she lends her pen to the house cocker spaniel, writes: “came again and again and again. At first it was once a week; then it was twice a week. He always came in the afternoon. And on the days he didn’t come, his letters would arrive. And when he was away, his flowers were there. And on mornings when she was alone, Miss Barrett wrote to him. This dark, stiff, brusque, vigorous man, with his brown hair, red cheeks and yellow gloves was everywhere”.
After two years, and despite his reluctance to act in secret, Browning insisted that the recluse take the plunge. The opportunity was provided by Mr. Barrett himself when, on September 9, 1846, he announced his decision to send his entire family to the country during a planned renovation. Elizabeth informed her suitor, whose response the following day was peremptory: they must marry without delay (illustration opposite). It’s true that, galvanized by her love, Elizabeth goes out more and more and regains a taste for the outside world. On the morning of the 12th, she gets up and discreetly leaves her room with her nurse Wilson. She joined Browning, and the two lovers were married in the parish church of St. Marylebone. The ceremony lasted half an hour, with Robert’s nurse and a friend as witnesses. Afterwards, out of respect for propriety and to prepare for the flight, the two women returned home for a week.
Like one of his childhood heroes, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who kidnapped Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankestein (but Mary was only sixteen!), Robert Browning fled eight days later to Italy with Elizabeth. Italy was chosen for several reasons: the climate, the lower cost of living, the arts and culture. On September 19, the recluse discreetly left 50 Wimpole Street, still accompanied by her nurse and, this time, the golden cocker spaniel Flush. The fugitives have to pass the dining room where Mr. Barrett is staying, and Elizabeth whispers: “If Flush barks, we’re lost”.
Flush didn’t bark, and the couple began a period of geographical and intellectual wandering, first from a temporary home in Florence, then, from the summer of 1847, from their base at Casa Guidi in Via Bassio, near the Pitti Palace. Thus, the poets traveled from city to city, Rome, Siena, Bagni di Lucca, Paris and even London, for several years (See section: “Chronology” and related article Robert Browning). Although Mr. Barrett threatens to kill the dog, who is already far away, and then disinherit his daughter, as he does with each of his children who transgress his opposition to marriage, Elizabeth’s personal annuity, inherited from an uncle who died in 1837, enables the couple to enjoy a small degree of comfort, especially as the Browning’s do not court riches and like to live frugally.
Elizabeth will never return to the family home, and her father will never forgive her for her “betrayal”. Her letters are returned to her unopened. The Barrett sisters approve of Elizabeth’s transgression, but her brothers are much more reticent. As a result, she never saw her father again, who died in 1857 without her being able to attend his last moments or his funeral.
The release from her Wimpole Street prison, the beauty of the Italian countryside and the love of her husband transformed Elizabeth, who, within a few months, was at least temporarily weaned off opium. She regained her mobility and, to a large extent, her dynamism (see section: “Chronology”), which seems to confirm that, while her organism remained fragile, bearing the after-effects of a probably pre-tubercular episode experienced during adolescence, her paralysis was of psychosomatic origin, a diagnosis later confirmed by medical science.
The Browning couple, but Elizabeth even more than her husband, was respected and admired in Italy, where she was often approached to talk to or ask for autographs. In 1849 in Florence, after several miscarriages, Elizabeth, then aged forty-three, gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, known as “Penini”, from the Italian word pinini (“little darling”), as his mother called him, and the first syllables he pronounced, shortened to “Pen”.
The latter married, but had no children: thus, the famous poets remained without direct descendants, and Casa Guidi is now owned by Eton College.
The last years and death
Browning insisted that the second edition of Elizabeth’s Poems should include the Sonnets from the Portuguese. This publication brought the poet’s reputation to its zenith in Victorian England, so much so that in 1850, on Wordsworth’s death, she was only narrowly edged out by Tennyson for the title of Poet Laureate.
However, her health deteriorated, no doubt due to pulmonary problems, perhaps tuberculosis, which was again treated with opiates. Weaker and weaker, she died in the arms of her husband, who was alone with her on the night of June 30, 1861. In a letter to Mrs. Blagden, Robert Browning recounts his wife’s last moments: “Then came what my heart will treasure until I see her again and beyond – the most perfect expression of her love for me. Always smiling, happy, her face like a young girl’s, in a few minutes she was dead, her head against my cheek… Without expectation, without awareness of separation, God took her back to him as one lifts a sleeping child in his arms into the light. Thank God. Her last words to him were: “It’s beautiful”. She is buried at the Cimitero degli Inglesi, also known as Florence’s Protestant Cemetery.
On July 1, 1861, the day of her funeral, the stores on the street where Casa Guidi is located closed their shutters in tribute to the poetess, and the town later had a commemorative plaque, composed by Niccolò Tommaseo, affixed above the main entrance, on which it is stated that “her poetry had created a golden ring between Italy and England”. Her white marble tomb was designed, in agreement with Robert Browning, by a family friend, Frederic, Lord Leighton, who depicted allegories and symbols representing Elizabeth’s life, struggles and works.
Browning then returned to England with his son Pen, who would later return to Italy and pursue a career as a sculptor and painter.
There are several reasons for this title, Sonnets from the Portuguese, for which we don’t know, a priori, whether Portuguese concerns the language or a person allegedly of Portuguese nationality. The only certainty is that from expresses provenance.
It’s usually translated as “La Portugaise”, because we know the context, but it’s almost certain that the original intended title was “Sonnets à partir du portugais” or “traduits du portugais”, often shortened in French to “Sonnets portugais”. Indeed, Elizabeth Barrett wrote them during her love correspondence with Robert Browning, and the latter, who came to know them late in life, three years after their marriage, insisted that she publish them, pointing out that no set of sonnets has existed as remarkable since Shakespeare.
Browning explained his wife’s reluctance: (“all this delay, because it so happened that, some time before, I had said I wasn’t in favor of putting her love into verse, then something else to the contrary, and the next morning she said hesitantly, ‘Do you know I’ve written some poems about you?’ Then she said, ‘Here they are, if you’d like to have a look. I remember the gesture well, I can hear the inflections in the voice. After that, I took care of the publication. We made an attempt at camouflage by leaving out a sonnet clearly referring to an earlier publication, but then put it back in when people decided to take off the mask that was once de rigueur. But I never cared. In any case, Elizabeth insists on preserving her privacy and is thinking of a literary disguise. Her first idea was a particularly exotic camouflage for the time, Sonnets from the Bosnian, but Browning urged her to change the name of the nationality.
The word “Portuguese” is used for both personal and literary reasons: in private, Elizabeth goes by the nickname “Portuguese” because of her very matte complexion (moreover, these cultured lovers knew and admired Claude Barbin’s Lettres portugaises, published in Paris in 1669. This is a fiery epistolary novel written by Gabriel-Joseph de la Vergne, comte de Guilleragues (1628-1685), peer of France, diplomat, secretary to the Prince de Conti and friend to literary luminaries of the 17th century, in particular Madame de Sévigné, Boileau and Racine. Last but not least, Elizabeth wrote a poem entitled Catarina to Camoens, singing of desperate love and rhyming in a traditional Portuguese versification pattern much admired by Robert Browning.
The love song
“From the soul of this half-paralyzed little thing, Browning’s love, so strong and confident in life, produces as if by magic the most beautiful poetic work ever written by a woman since Sappho – the Sonnets from the Portuguese.”
In fact, the 44 sonnets that make up this collection are all very personal poems published in 1850, and not allegedly in 1847 in Reading, as the Reading Version, edited by Thomas James Wise (1859-1937), a renowned collector but unmasked in a pamphlet for having made a specialty of literary forgeries. They describe the birth, then the development of Elizabeth’s feeling for her famous, soberly passionate and always respectful correspondent. In a letter to Mrs. Martin, she is full of praise for Robert Browning’s fortitude, courage and integrity.
In her aforementioned letter of March 4, 1845, she writes to Browning that she sees herself as “a blind poet” who has lived only inwardly, but who, despite the shortcomings of her confinement, has made great discoveries about human nature through the practice of self-awareness and introspection. However, she adds, “How willingly I would as a poet exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous, helpless knowledge of books, for some experience of life & man…” (How willingly I would as a poet exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous, helpless knowledge of books, for some experience of life & man…).
Gradually, she reveals her slow but steady progress towards the certainty that the love she offers is sincere and profound, culminating in an explosion of happiness that is all the more jubilant for its lateness (Elizabeth Barrett, not yet Browning, is 40 and six years Browning’s senior). This is particularly true of the penultimate sonnet, the XLIIIth, the most famous and most often quoted.
This series progresses from sonnet to sonnet, from mistrust (after all, Elizabeth receives many letters from admirers, and she knows “the vanity and fickleness of men”), to the recognition of a troubling and never denied sincerity, to the temptations of rejecting this beloved to feel unworthy of him, the acceptance of her passion with no hope of reciprocation, the powerlessness to draw her poetic inspiration from anywhere other than this love at last accepted, and, in the end, the supreme audacity that throws her out of herself, out of her refuge, her family, her fading youth, to give her a new, almost triumphant one. In sonnet XLII, she exclaims: “My future will not be a clean copy of my past”.
As Lauraine Jungelson writes, “The Sonnets translated from Portuguese are rightly considered Elizabeth Browning’s finest work, perhaps because the poet, usually criticized for the lack of clarity in her metaphors, has disciplined her talent within the strict form of the sonnet, which has the advantage of imposing the use of a single image, and favoring the coherent expression of intimate feelings. Their beauty and interest lie in the dramatic account of a woman’s evolution in love”.
A novel in verse with a message
The novel was dedicated to John Kenyon, Esq. on October 17, 1856, with these words: “this poor token of esteem, gratitude and affection” from
Harriett Hosmer, a friend of the Browning couple, recounts how the title was chosen. At dinner one day, Elizabeth wondered what would be the best name for her heroine, “Laura Leigh” or “Aurora Leigh”? Browning immediately opted for “Aurora”. Harriett, unaware of what it was all about, declared that she found “Laura Leigh” insipid and “invertebrate”. When the book was published, Elizabeth, remembering this anecdote, sent Harriett Hosmer a copy with the dedication “In the hope that it has vertebrae”.
Aurora Leigh, the first-person narrator, recounts her personal and literary development from birth to her thirtieth year. She lost her Italian mother when she was four, her father when she was thirteen, and was sent to England’s West Country to live with an aunt of very traditional tastes and principles.
When she was twenty, her cousin Romney Leigh, heir to the family estate, proposed marriage and also that she give up poetry to devote herself with him to fighting the evils of her time. She refused, arguing that, as a woman, she was entitled, like him, to fulfill a vocation, and proclaiming that the poet’s work was just as important to society as that of a political and social reformer. On the death of her aunt, Aurora moved to London, where she made a name for herself in the literary world.
Some years later, she receives a visit from Lady Waldemar, who has come to ask for her help in preventing Romney, whom she covets for herself, from marrying a young seamstress, Marian Earle, whom he doesn’t really love but who would serve to draw attention to the chasm separating the world of the rich from that of the poor. Aurora visits Marian, who lives in a slum, and listens with emotion to the story of her unhappy existence. On the wedding day, Marian leaves Romney alone at the altar and disappears.
Two years later, Aurora, now a successful poet, decides to return to Italy. Along the way, she lingers in Paris, where, by chance, she meets Marian and her baby, and learns of the latest vicissitudes in their lives. She takes in mother and child, brings them to Italy and settles with them on the outskirts of Florence. The months pass peacefully until the appearance of Romney who, transformed by the failure of his socialist ambitions, precipitates the resolution of the plot.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning worked on Aurora Leigh from winter 1853 to summer 1856, finishing it in what she called “a plague of industry”, a state of “furia” in which she put “everything of herself, her soul, her thoughts, her emotions, her opinions”.
Considering the circumstances of her life, it may come as a surprise that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, long a recluse and recluse, is the first person to offer the most complete poetic representation of the early Victorian era. Her earlier works were mostly inspired by her readings or meditations, and her personal feelings. Yet even before she met her future husband, she had conceived the project of a long poem “embracing the mores of modern life, without concession to convention”. From the outset, she wanted only “a few characters, a simple story and plenty of room for passion and thought, a poem in the autobiographical genre, written in blank verse, with a heroine who was an artist, but not a painter.
Many ingredients are brought together in this sum that mixes genres: autobiography, novel, social satire, topical pamphlet, poetic treatise, theodicy. From the slums of London to the Italian campagna, a plain located in the Roman region, and on to the New Jerusalem, the places, real or mythical, change and the themes addressed follow one another: vocation, sexuality, aesthetics, politics, the social condition, religion, all linked and inspired by the furia evoked by the author and what Virginia Woolf calls “her ardour and abundance, her brilliant descriptive powers, her shrewd and caustic humour”.
There’s a mix of juvenile gifting and restrictive precepts, parish gossip and posh salon gossip, contrasting portraits of high society, for example the militant Catholic Sir Blaise Delorme, “thirty-five and medieval”, the radical Lord Howe accommodating his socialism to the “traditions of his caste”. One of the most successful figures is surely Lady Waldemar, largely inspired by Elizabeth herself, intelligent, sarcastic, with a scintillating and colorful speech, reminiscent of Lady Glencora, one of Anthony Trollope’s heroines.
Whenever she is attacked for choosing an allegedly shocking subject, she responds with vehemence. For example, when Aurora Leigh is judged immoral for having evoked the bangs of prostitution and preserved the innocent purity of Marian Earle, a victim of drugs and rape, but an exemplary mother to her illegitimate son, she places things in the order of morality, not appearances. She writes: “I don’t like crude subjects, or the crude treatment of any subject. But I am deeply convinced that the corruption of our society has no need of closed doors and windows, but of air and light; and that it is precisely because women who are pure and prosperous deliberately close their eyes to vice that the poor are its victims everywhere” (I don’t like coarse subjects, or the coarse treatment of any subject. But I am deeply convinced that the corruption of our society requires not shut doors and windows, but light and air; and that it is exactly because pure and prosperous women choose to ignore vice, that miserable women suffer wrong by it everywhere).
Already in 1857, the critical press recognized in Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poem of a woman asserting herself as such. The North American Review insisted on this characteristic, even though it pointed out that her talents were those generally associated with men: “Mrs. Browning’s poems are, in all respects, the utterance of a woman, uniting to her woman’s nature the strength which is sometimes thought peculiar to a man” (Les poèmes de Mme Browning émanent en tous points d’une expression de femme qui unitant à sa nature féminine la force qu’on pense souvent être la marque de l’homme).
A fortiori, the late twentieth century, for example Dorothy Mermin, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, saw in Aurora Leigh above all the first true Künstlerroman, i.e. a novel devoted to the inner life of a woman artist, with her “heart’s large seasons” that “hope
Since the early 1990s, critics have endeavored to place Aurora Leigh in her proper context. No more than George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not claim to belong to a feminist ideology. Towards the end of the poem, Aurora describes herself as “A woman as God made women
For Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in fact, the love uniting two hearts or souls in marriage represents the visible part of the invisible love of God, the transcendent patriarch on whom the love of men depends. Aurora’s and Romney’s failure has long been not to place themselves in God’s hands. “We surely made too small a part for God”, cries Aurora, and Romney forgets his socialist ambitions to “throw the remedy back on God”. Thus, God, love, marriage, duty, art, the New Jerusalem are all celebrated in chorus in the finale in a kind of poetic rapsody.
Hippolyte Taine admired the poem from the outset, highlighting, in particular, the fluidity of the discourse, successfully, he wrote, “created at any moment, from anything and everything”. According to Kerry McSweeney, this analysis captures the disheveled tempo of the narrative, its modulations from dialogue to description or portrait, what Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself calls “a chromatic sequence of beautiful thought” leading to “a surprise of harmony”.
Virginia Woolf, who doesn’t share Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spiritual vision, sums up the pleasure of reading Aurora Leigh. In one of her essays, she writes that “this long, contrasting poem” is “stimulating and tedious, gauche and eloquent, monstrous and exquisite, all at once, it fills you and flummoxes you, but, it commands respect and arouses interest One laughs, one protests, we complain – it’s absurd, it’s impossible, we can’t stand the exaggeration – but we’re captivated and read it to the end ” ( stimulating and boring, ungainly and eloquent, monstrous and exquisite, all by turns, it overwhelms and bewilders; but, nevertheless it still commands our inerest and inspires our respect We laugh, we protest, we complain – it is absurd, it is impossible, we cannot tolerate this exaggeration a moment longer – but, nevertheless, we read to the end enthralled).
Excerpt from Aurora Leigh
This excerpt was chosen because it serves as an introduction to the novel in verse.
Canto I, verses 1 to 28.
The story begins with a short profession of faith, presented in a stanza of eight lines, unrhymed decasyllables in an iambic rhythm (unstressed syllable, stressed syllable), so called blank verse pentameters.
Then, Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives voice to a voice, supposedly that of her narrator, but which summarizes, by telescoping them and with chronological gaps (mother’s death), the sensations and impressions of the first years of her own life: the infant’s rediscovered innocence, the echo of divine infinity (see reference to Wordsworth in verse 13), the mother’s light, fresh presence, her disappearance, the father’s strong, heavy presence, now indispensable by default.
For Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poetry and religion are inextricably linked. The Bible (she read the Old Testament from cover to cover in Hebrew) and theological debates in which she took part, her reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the reflection that this vision engendered in her, all saturated her mind and her writings. “Christ’s religion is essentially poetry-poetry glorified”, she wrote.
Thus, his own poetry must itself be sanctified: “we want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding suffering in renovation.” ( we want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation.).
The two texts that inspire her most are the Gospel according to St. John (Κατά Ιωαννην) and the Apocalypse according to St. John (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου). From start to finish in Aurora Leigh, she alludes to the former, in which she finds “a depth of Love everywhere-serene thro’ its profundity”. The last book of the poem echoes the Apocalypse in its conclusion, with a host of direct and implicit references.
Beyond the religious phenomenon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was also interested in certain practices in vogue, including animal magnetism, also known as “mesmerism”, a set of therapeutic theories and practices that developed from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century in the West. Spread by lecturers and itinerant practitioners such as Jules Dupotet de Sennevoy, mesmerism was very popular in England from the late 1830s to the early 1850s.
It was Dupotet’s pupil, John Elliotson, who was responsible for Elizabeth Barrett’s discovery of mesmerism, as he was her father’s personal physician, as well as that of Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Harriet Martineau. In 1844, Harriet Martineau, suffering from a chronic illness, underwent a mesmerism cure initiated by the renowned magnetizer Spencer T. Hall, which brought about a marked improvement in her condition in just a few months. The following year, she published her Letters on Mesmerism. Elizabeth Barrett observed Harriet Martineau’s treatment, with interest heightened by her own state of health, and suggested that she should have recourse to it herself; she did not follow this recommendation, however, because, she wrote, “I understand that in cases such as mine, over-exciting the organism, the remedy has done harm and not good. I understand that in cases like mine, the remedy has done harm instead of good, by over-exciting the system. But her experience will settle the question of the reality of magnetism with a whole generation of infidels). Charlotte Brontë was also curious about Harriet Martineau’s treatment, and experimented with it herself, writing to her sister Emily in 1851.
It also refers to “Swedenborgism” (in English: Swendenborgianism), a kind of mystical theosophy instituted by Swendenborg: Swendenborgianism), a kind of mystical theosophy instituted by Swendenborg (1688-1772), which Balzac satirizes through the preaching of Pastor Becker in Séraphîta.
Elizabeth practised Mesmerism and Swedenborgism, although there are no traces of this in her work other than a few mentions, notably in Aurora Leigh, Book V, c. 605, where a certain Joseph Strangways, “the Leeds mesmerist”, is mentioned. These actions, however, sometimes seemed rather scandalous, especially as they emanated from a woman, and as a result, she was the object of strong reproaches, but which don’t seem to have concerned her much.
Social and political influences
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a complex character who, while fully embracing the values, i.e. virtues, of her time, has both a natural and cultural inclination towards radicalism. She had an instinctive horror of injustice, and had read the writings of French “socialists” such as Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Victor Considerant and Louis Blanc, as well as English “Christian socialists”, particularly her contemporaries Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), Thomas Hughes and Frederick Maurice, better known as F. D. Maurice (1805-1872), whose sermons aroused the admiration (Charles Kingsley) or boredom (Thomas Carlyle) of his peers, and whose writings were at the origin of the so-called Christian Socialism movement. F. D. Maurice remains well known in England, where many streets bear his name, for having founded Queen’s College for the education of women (1848) and Working Men’s College (1854). In Aurora Leigh, Book III, verses 584 and 585, the narrator has Romney say that he knows “the works of Fourier, Proudhon, Victor Considerant, Louis Blanc”, and, Book V, verses 737, F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, both “concerned about the working-class condition and convinced that the solution lies in Christianity, whose values are compatible with socialism”.
Indeed, his contemporaries, including some very illustrious authors, took an interest in the problems of society. Alfred Tennyson, for example, in “English Idylls”, published with other poems in 1842, or The Princess (1847), or the monodrama Maud (1855), takes an interest in what is known as The Woman Question. Elizabeth also admired books about the working class and the plight of women (Ruth, in particular, by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, known as Mrs Gaskell).
Younger poets were also energetically tackling the ills that were eating away at the fabric of society. Among them was Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), brother of early suffragist Anne Jemima Clough, who, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, took an interest in the tribulations of Italian Unity, particularly in his verse letters Amours de voyage (1858), set against the backdrop of the brief Republic of Rome in 1848-1849, and his “The Bothie of Toper-na-fuosich”, A Long-Vacation Pastoral”, later renamed “The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich” (as did Coventry Patmore (1823-1896), part of the Pre-Raphaelite group gathered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both painter and poet, with “The Angel in the House”) and George Meredith (1828-1909), who published “Modern Love” in 1862.
However, the chronology shows that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was often ahead of or alongside them and, at least as far as Meredith is concerned, could not have known of her work, published a year after her death. In any case, “The most ambitious efforts were those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning” ( was made by Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
Rather than his contemporaries, it was the authors of the Age of Enlightenment who awakened his conscience. Among them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his social and educational theories, expressed in “Discours sur les sciences et les arts” (1750), “Du contrat social”, “Émile ou De l’éducation” (1762). Similarly, and perhaps even more importantly, Thomas Paine or Payne (1737-1809), an Englishman who became an American after enjoying French nationality, was a militant for the independence of the American colonies, making his name with a treatise on the Rights of Man and a pamphlet entitled “Common sense”.
In the first period, then, Elizabeth’s activism was more social in nature, as in the poem “The Cry of the Children”, published in the 1844 edition of Poems and based on parliamentary reports on the employment of children in the Kingdom’s mines and factories: “Do you hear the cries of the children, ö my brothers
(Entendez-vous, mes frères, les enfants pleurer avant que le chagrin ne vienne avec les années ? Ils appuient leur jeune tête sur leur mère, et celle-ci ne peut arrêter leurs larmes).
From 1846, her move to Italy made her more political. Whereas Robert Browning was more interested in the great historical perspectives, she was more in touch with contemporary problems. Sensitive to the difficult transition of the Italian nation to a modern state, she defended the unsuccessful struggle of Tuscany against Austria, and then the Italian unity movement that fought its battle in 1859. Thus, she published Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and, later, Poems before Congress (1860), in which her sympathy and militancy were successively expressed on both issues. She remains critical, however, knowing how to confront the political flux and often contradictory nature of nationalist aspirations.
Her attitude was not always appreciated. Throughout her life with Robert Browning, she was considered a greater poet than he, but her freedom of expression, denouncing abuses or supporting liberation movements, often shocked mentalities (see Aurora Leigh chapter).
No direct influence can be detected in the content of these sonnets, which are entirely inspired by Elizabeth’s feelings for Robert Browning (see Sonnets from the Portuguese).
In terms of form, however, Elizabeth adopted the Petrarchan (or Petrarchanist) model, also known in French as “italien” or “marotique”, with chiusa rima, i.e. “embraced rhymes”, following the pattern for the quatrains and alternate rhymes for the tercets. However, the pause, the volta, which divides the Petrarchan sonnet into two parts, is not always respected, being either upstream or downstream. The Portuguese Sonnets thus come very close to the structure already used by John Milton (1608-1674) and also, closer to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though less often, by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the leader of the early Romantics.
What’s more, when it comes to metrics, she’s mostly concerned with the music, what the English call “the lilt” of the verse. Her rhyme scheme is not very orthodox, with assonances associated with true rhymes. In sonnet I, for example, we find: sung
The first direct influence was the presence of Robert Browning. As Mary Sanders Pollock writes, “Before his relationship with Robert Browning began in 1845, Barrett’s desire to engage in public debates about social and aesthetic issues in poetry, which had been so powerful in his youth, gradually lost its ardor, as did his physical health. His intellectual presence and physical being were a shadow of their former selves.
When looking for English women poets who preceded her, Elizabeth Barrett Browning laments: “I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none”. On the other hand, she appreciates certain female novelists, with the exception of Jane Austen (1775-1807), about whom she writes: “She achieves perfection in what she undertakes… but her excellence, it seems to me, lies more in execution than in aspiration. Her vision of life is narrow, down-to-earth and essentially non-poetic. Her characters never lift their gaze, and when they turn it towards themselves, they don’t touch the depths… Conventional Life is not Inner Life. God, Nature, the Soul, what does she say, or even suggest about them?
Corinne, by Madame de Staël (1766-1817), published in 1807, which she had read three times before the age of twenty, and in which the modern woman makes her first appearance, may have suggested to her the idea of an idea-laden novel with digressions such as Aurora Leigh. Her central character, Corinne, born of an Italian mother and English father, lives in Italy until her teens, when she is sent to the English countryside to learn to be a lady. On her return, however, like Aurora, she realizes that her vocation is that of an artist.
Similarly, the novels of George Sand (1804-1876) fed Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s imagination, and some critics of the time were not mistaken when they complained that Aurora Leigh “looked too much like” Consuelo. In fact, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was particularly fond of this novel, which she compared to the Odyssey, “a sort of rambling Odyssey, a female Odyssey, if you like”.
Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) were also the object of her admiration, and we can’t fail to be struck by the resemblance, in Aurora Leigh (see chapter above), between Romney Leigh and St John Rivers, and also by the fact that this central character shares the fate of Jane Eyre’s two male protagonists, the heroine Jane’s rejection of St John Rivers, her savior, and the mutilation (loss of sight) of Rochester, her only love.
There are also intertextual links between Aurora Leigh and “father or brother” novels. For example, Le Cousin Pons by Balzac (1799-1850), of which Elizabeth wrote that the author was “subject out of the lowest mud of humanity, and glorified and consecrated it”, a remark that could be applied to Marian Earle, the young seamstress. The expression “lowest mud” here refers not to this character’s character, but to her social extraction.
Another French novelist she admired was Eugène Sue (1804-1857), of whom she wrote that Les Mystères de Paris was “a work of genius and power”, despite its extravagances, and from whose virtuous heroine, Fleur-de-Marie, she borrowed the essential traits of Marian Earle (see Aurora Leigh chapter).
Finally, the fiction of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), whose Ernest Maltravers she describes as “splendid”, struck her as contemporary, and she fully endorses Bulwer Lytton’s judgment when he writes that his book carries “the philosophical design, of a moral education or apprenticeship) “conveyed through the lips or in the life of an imaginary writer of our own time”.
Like Aurora Leigh, all these works have as their themes, to varying degrees, initiation, learning, passage, vocation and elevation.
On the social and political problems of his time
Elizabeth Barrett Browning aroused in her cultured contemporaries, both in England and the United States, an esteem unequalled for a woman poet in the 19th century.
She owed this to her talent, but also to her stance against the social injustices of her time: the slave trade in the British Empire, from which her own father benefited for a long time, and also in America and other colonial empires; the oppression of Italians by the Austrian Empire; child labor in her country’s mines and factories; the condition of women.
The two main poems concerned, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems before Congress, are entirely dedicated to the Italian liberation movements.
As early as 1851, the former expresses the hope that these new liberal groups will work towards the unification and freedom of the Italian nation. The second part of the poem, however, written after the movement had been crushed by Austrian imperialism, bears the mark of disillusionment. And when, after a decade’s truce, the Italians resumed the struggle, but were forced to accept that Venice would remain under Habsburg rule, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the second, in 1860, and took the English government to task for its policy of non-intervention. One of the poems in the latter collection, A Curse for a Nation, which attacks slavery in the Americas, had already been published in a Boston abolitionist newspaper.
Aurora Leigh also aroused the interest, both positive and negative, of her contemporaries with her stance on the condition of women under male domination, claiming for her heroine the fundamental right to fulfill her destiny as a poet and artist.
John Ruskin hailed the work as “the perfect poetic expression of the age”. On the other hand, Edward FitzGerald, the translator of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (1803-1883), was rather pleased when he commented on Elizabeth’s death: “Mrs Browning’s Death, to tell the truth, is rather a relief to me. Thank God, no more Aurora Leigh! A woman of genius, to be sure; but to what end? She and her Semblables would do better to concern themselves with Cooking and Children, and perhaps the Poor. Apart from a few short novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better than they do.
In 1899, Lilian Whiting published a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning entitled A study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which she called her “the most philosophical of poets”, and described her life as “a Gospel of applied Christianity”. She adds that all her poems have a specific aim, and are in no way part of a conception of art for art’s sake.
However, critics at the end of the century, some forty years after his death, recognized the universal value of poems such as The Cry of the Children, Isobel’s Child, Bertha in the Lane and many sections of Aurora Leigh.
More recently, feminist movements have taken a particular interest in her work. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, however, rejected some of the tenets of feminism, indicating in her letters to Mary Russell Mitford and also to her husband that she was convinced that women remained intellectually inferior. Feminist critics have used the techniques of deconstruction advocated by Jacques Derrida to valorize her importance. For example, Angela Leighton writes that the very fact that Elizabeth Barrett Browning participates, as a woman, in the literary world, in which the male voice and expression prevail, “defines her in mysterious opposition to everything that distinguishes the male subject who writes”.
Robert Browning was inspired by the love he shared with his wife. In Men and Women, for example, there are several poems about the vicissitudes of sentiment. Love among the Ruins (“L’amour parmi les ruins”), though passionate, denounces the infirmity of the will that leads to failure; By the Fireside (“À deux dans la campagne italienne”) lets us see, beyond the union of hearts, the metaphysical “fusion” of souls; Any Wife to any Husband poses the problem of fidelity in men and women, and concludes with the superiority of feminine nature; finally, in One Word More, Browning speaks directly, extolling the supremacy of love, which triumphs over the past, old age and death.
Algernon Swinburne always admired the Browning couple. On the death of Elizabeth’s husband Robert, he composed a series of seven sonnets written in three days, on December 13, 14 and 15, 1889, devoted to his personality, his work and also to his feelings about the loss. Similarly, in 1898, he returned to Elizabeth, this time devoting an essay to his Aurora Leigh. Here again, he expresses his astonishment at the originality, courage and prophetic character of this novel in verse, in which he finds many of the themes he claims for himself. Furthermore, he analyzes the literary prowess, nourished by erudition, both ancient and modern, which, far from weighing down the text, gives it a thought-provoking density and validates the complexity of the developments.
Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by Lady Geraldine’s Courtship and borrowed its versification for The Raven. Poe had written a review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Drama of Exile and Other Poems (1844) in January 1845 in the Broadway Journal: “Her poetic inspiration is at its zenith – nothing more sovereign could be conceived. Her poetic inspiration is the highest – we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself (. In return, Elizabeth congratulated him on The Raven, and Poe dedicated his The Raven and Other Poems to her, describing her as “the noblest of her sex”.
Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson spent a good part of her life reclining in her room, and she admired her persistence, her militancy and also the extremely polished quality of her works. She treasures a photograph of his tomb in the English section of Florence Cemetery. Jack L. Capps has even shown, in Emily Dickinson’s Reading, 1836-1886, that she borrowed passages from him and incorporated them more or less directly into some of her own poems.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, experienced a period of seclusion after the disappearance of her fiancé during the Civil War, during which time she decided to become a writer. She drew her inspiration from Aurora Leigh, which she read when she was sixteen, a call to poetic contemplation that delighted her.
Rainer Maria Rilke was fascinated by the Sonnets from the Portuguese. This fascination is analyzed by Lauraine Jungelson in the second part of her presentation of the collection in the bilingual edition published by Fayard. She begins by underlining the paradox of this interest, since the sonnets celebrate shared love, whereas Rilke is a champion of unrequited love. For him, the figure of the loving woman becomes an allegory of the action of loving. And yet, he sees in Elizabeth “reflections of the ideal woman”.
In a sense, Elizabeth defies his theory: for him, “it is scarcely conceivable that a woman could devote herself to art without doing harm to her nature”. According to Lauraine Jungelson, “Rilke’s ideas on man, woman, love and creation, contained in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910, were inspired by the work of Lou Andréas-Salomé, and in particular by Eros, a collection of four essays, two of which, L’Humanité de la femme (1899) and Réflexions sur le problème de l’amour (1900), date from the period when the two authors (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, however, reconciles love in life, and not outside it, with literary creation.
As with her husband Robert Browning, married love, far from paralyzing her, increased her poetic power tenfold, becoming the inspiration for her work. It is therefore impossible to consider the sonnets in isolation from their personal reference. It is for this reason that Rilke writes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s voice that it remains “one of the great bird calls in the landscapes of love”.
Virginia Woolf dedicated an original fictional biography to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, through the “autobiography” of her dog, the spaniel Flush (Flush, a Biography). The word autobiography came into use very late: it was Robert Southey who first used it in England in 1809, and again with a hyphen between “auto” and “biography”, in imitation of the German “Selbst-Biographie”. In 1933, Virginia Woolf’s use of “Biography” may well have been intended to respect the name that still prevailed in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, the book soon becomes an account of the poet’s life, supposedly from the point of view of the animal who has the privilege of rubbing shoulders with an exceptional woman, first in the countryside, then in the capital, and finally in bucolic Italy. Biographical fiction is an opportunity for Virginia Woolf to raise a number of political, social and even environmental issues close to her heart, in line with the concerns of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
In addition, she was fascinated by Aurora Leigh (see chapter above). She read and reread it, and the third time, she declared she did so “with even more pleasure than ever before” (.
In her introduction to the book, published in the Westminster Review, Virginia Woolf remarked that “no poem embraces such a range of thoughts and emotions, or takes such possession of our nature. Mrs. Browning is perhaps the first woman to give a work that lays bare the power and not the negation of the feminine, that adds to masculine vigor, stature and culture, the subtlety of perception, the vividness of sensibility and tenderness peculiar to a woman”, and she adds that Aurora Leigh’s heroine, “with her passion for social problems, her conflict as woman and artist, her aspiration to knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age”.
This praise, from such a renowned writer, has left deep traces in the criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work, which, even today, follows in the wake of Virginia Woolf and favors the protest aspect to the detriment, perhaps, of lyricism, with the exception of the Portuguese Sonnets.
Complete list of publications in chronological order:
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Citation : They seem to me my native hills; for though I was born in the county of Durham, I was an infant when I went first into their neighbourhood, and lived there until I had passed twenty by several years
- Article wikipedia anglais : Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Love : amour, à la différence de like
- ^ Exact date of birth may not be correct. See Early life for more information.
- Mermin, Dorothy (1989). Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry’,. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226520391. p. 19-20.
- a b Jessica Bomarito and Jeffrey W. Hunter (eds) (2005). «Browning, Elizabeth Barrett: Introduction.». Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. Vol. 2: 19th Century, Topics & Authors (A-B). p. 467–469.
- Dictionary of National Biography (англ.) / L. Stephen, S. Lee — London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1885.
- group of authors Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.): a dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information / H. Chisholm — 11 — New York City, Cambridge: University Press, 1911.