1902 Encyclopedia > Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
English poet

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, the most distin-guished poet of her sex that England has produced, was born in London in the year 1809. She was the daughter of Mr Barrett, an English country gentleman. From a very early age, almost before the years of childhood had passed, she exhibited a remarkable preference for the arts, but especially that of the poetic. Previous to attaining her fifteenth year she had written verse upon which was the stamp of true genius—poems eminently worthy of preservation Whatever she wrote, however, was sacred to all eyes save those of her father, to whom she refers in the first collected edition of her poems as " my public and my critic." Her physical constitution was most fragile and delicate, but nature seemed to have supplemented her deficiency in this respect by bestowing upon her an unusually sensitive mental and spiritual organization. One who knew her intimately, Miss Mitford, has described her as 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 eye-lashes, and a smile like a sunbeam." All descriptions of Miss Barrett concur in this, that she possessed a grace and a delicacy which defied representa-tion by the artist. Her studies were early directed to the poets of antiquity, and, under the guidance of her blind tutor, Boyd, whose name she always warmly cherished, she mastered the rich treasures of iEsehylus The sublime Grecian possessed for her a charm which was only equalled by the fascination held over her wondering spirit by our own Shakespeare. Her knowledge of Greek literature was most profound; she was intimately familiar with all the Attic writers in tragedy and comedy. Yet this did not prevent her from drinking at the wells of English undefined. Her correspondence with eminent contemporaries of both sexes proves her to have been thoroughly acquainted, with English literature in its progress from Chaucer down-wards. The circumstances of her own life, and her lack of robust health, conspired to make her seek, even more than she might have otherwise done, the communion of the great departed in arts and letters. Not being able to pass from place to place without fatigue and danger, the solitude she was compelled to maintain probably threw her still more ardently into those pursuits which, while dear to the mind, were probably injurious to the body. Most frail from her birth, as we have already seen, it was her misfortune further to have her existence endangered in 1837 by the bursting of a blood-vessel in the lungs. By the exercise of extreme care her life was preserved, but the incident was succeeded by a long period of weakness and suffering. Some two years after this first severe shock to her system, and before she had quite recovered from its effects, she was again assailed by misfortune, experiencing the keenest anguish on witnessing the death of her favourite brother, who was drowned at Torquay. As might have been expected from one of. her clinging and affectionate disposi-tion, a long period of danger followed this catastrophe, and when at length she was able to be removed to her father's house, it was only to become an invalid, with the prospect of a life couch-ridden to its close. This period of seclusion lasted for seven long years; and the interval was em-ployed by Miss Barrett in eagerly devouring all the books which could be brought within her reach. At this time also she was sedulously cultivating the art that was afterwards to ensure for her immortality. When she was in her thirty-seventh year, that is, in 1846, she was married to Mr Browning, and the union was singularly felicitous. More cannot be said, as the author of The Ring and the Book still lives. Mr Browning bore his wife to Italy, and for some years the sunny skies of the south were instru-mental in giving to Mrs Barrett Browning that health which had so long forsaken her in her native land. The villa of the Brownings in Florence was the resort of many noble spirits, eminent either for patriotism or in the arts. Mrs Browning died at Florence in the year 1861, after testifying in many ways her singular devotion to the country of her adoption.

The poetry of this writer is distinguished for its emotional spirit; had her imagination equalled her capacity for feeling she might have taken rank with the highest of our poets. Sensibility and intuition, those endowments of supreme importance to writers of genius, whose greatness is to grow in proportion to their understanding and interpretation of human life, were in her united in a degree seldom witnessed. The aspirations she indulged, and the character she doubtless wished to be impressed upon her own works, were well set forth when she observed on one occasion, " we want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature as it touched other dead things; 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. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest. Something of a yearning after this may be seen among the Greek Christian poets, something which would have been much with a stronger faculty." Imbued fully with this idea of the sacredness of poetry, Mrs Browning went to the deepest fount of all inspiration—the human heart—and endeavoured to read clearly its intimate relations with God. A peculiar tenderness breathes through her writings, whether of the humblest or the most ambitious description. Almost her first work bore upon it the traces of her Greek studies, being an excellent translation of the Prometheus. Another very early production, The Drama of Exile, is unquestionably marked by great sublimity of thought, though the conception may lack the mighty outlines of the majestic Milton. Eloquent and sustained, however, the poem made manifest a pure and original writer. Mrs Browning's genius had two sides—the lyric and the dramatic. Her lyrical capabilities were of the highest order; she was greater probably in this particular than either Campbell or Tennyson, though on several occasions Campbell touched the loftiest point such a writer can attain. The heart, which has always given our lyric poets their greatest power, was the strength nf Mrs Browning ; her song was a living voice, eloquent with passion. In one of her lyrics she uttered her conclusion upon the human mystery, " knowledge by suffering entereth, and life is perfected by death." The spirituality of her " Vision of Poets " is a noticeable quality, and it is in a loftier strain than that of "The Two Voices," though cast in the same mould. Wandering amongst the minor poems of Mrs Browning, such for instance as " The Bomaunt of Margret," " Isobel's Child," " Bertha in the Lane," and " the Swan's Nest among the Beeds," is like standing in the forest alone, with the wailing wind and the flying rain as the only assurances of an existence sublimer than our own. Yet she has thereby reached the profoundest depths of the human heart. But even when most depressed she does not lose faith—confidence in the triumph of the good and the right. To her it was not always necessary to understand the wrong which she beheld ; she saw it and hated it, and she has helped men by her writings to do something towards making an end of it. " The Cry of the Children" is a striking illustration of her keen feeling and eloquent power as a philanthropist. She felt for all who are in any way crushed or bruised by the pressure of society, and of social distinctions, or of social misfortunes. Her poetry bears the impress of tender and profound sympathy with human suffering in every form.

The range of this author's powers was wide, as may be gathered by a comparison between such poems as " A Child's Thought of God" and " Casa Guidi Windows." In the latter she attained her ripest growth and greatest intellectual strength. The poem is as sustained as anything which she ever wrote, and more perfect than the remain-ing lengthy poems. The " Casa Guidi Windows" had the advantage of a direct and powerful inspiration. From her windows at Florence Mrs Browning looked out upon the Italian people struggling for freedom, and her enthusiasm was enkindled. Her utterances were therefore in accord-ance with the fulness of her heart, lavish and unrestrained. The extraordinary wealth and strength of imagery which the poem contains must have been noticed by every reader, and it includes doubtless much of her finest writing. In the inditing of the sonnet, always conceded to be a most difficult task, Mrs Browning was very successful. She is the equal of Wordsworth in this respect, and her " Sonnets from the Portuguese" (but thinly disguised, and giving really the history of her own feelings) are a compact and remarkable series of verses. They present us with a complete study of a human heart as it is affected by the passion of love. First, there is the soul expecting death, when suddenly life is revivified by love ; then the grave, which had seemed inevitable, is put behind the soul; and finally comes the sequel, the marriage of those whose history has been traced in the Sonnets. The unity and psychological interest of this series of poems are their most prominent features.

Mrs Browning's fame chiefly rests upon Aurora Leigh, except with diligent and reverent students of her other works. The longest poem, nevertheless, which came from her hand is the one, to quote her own words, into which her " highest convictions upon life and art have entered." Yet it has had the result of causing a wide diversity of opinion upon its merits. Extravagant encomiums or unjust aspersions are generally awarded to it. For a poem of such magnitude unity is essential, and this we find to be lacking. It'has not the one purpose—never ignored and never for-gotten—which runs through In Memoriam. One of its great charms, however, viz., its intense subjectivity, will prevent Aurora Leigh from falling into desuetude. The writer unfolds with great beauty of expression the truth that that is real art which assists in any degree to lead back the soul to contemplate God, the supreme artist of the universe. But notwithstanding its philosophy, as a solution for many of the problems of our social existence, the poem must be pronounced a failure. It is charged with passages of lofty poetry, though occasionally it falls into mediocrity. It is to be regarded rather as an autobiography (which indeed it claims to be) than as a poem characterized by fine conception or perfect execution. The position of Mrs Browning as a poet is now yielded. Her genius was perhaps as great as that of any poet of our generation, but circumstances retarded its highest possible development. In certain intellectual qualities she was inferior to Tennyson and the author of Sordello, but in others she was their superior.

Be her exact niche, however, what it may, she occupies a favoured place in English literature, and is undoubtedly one of the few leading poets of the 19th century. Her poetry is that which refines, chastens, and elevates. Much of it is imperishable, and although she did not reach the height of the few mighty singers of all time, she has shown us the possibility of the highest forms of the poetic art being within the scope of woman's genius. (G. B. S.)

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