Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806—1861)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806—1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert are the only married couple among English writers who have any claim to genuine distinction as poets. One can speculate about what that unique fact means for poetry and for matrimony, but it says something about the great distinction and durability of both Brownings as poets. Elizabeth was some years older than Robert, and, when they first met, she was the more famous poet. Her first book, Essay on Mind, with Other Poems, was published in 1826, when she was barely twenty and he was still in his teens. She died twenty-eight years before he did, and he spent the last quarter of his life as a lonely widower.

Their story still reads like a soap opera with many melodramatic features, including bodily illness, paternal opposition, romantic art, and a secret wedding. Elizabeth developed a lingering affliction in 1838 and was an invalid for several years thereafter. Robert wrote to her in 1845, praising her work, and they soon met and began corresponding. In September of 1846 they were wed in secrecy and fled to Italy, where they lived for most of the rest of her relatively short life.

She is most celebrated for one or two lyrics from the collection called Sonnets from the Portuguese, but she wrote much more than short romantic lyrics. The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) and Poems (1844) show an impressive variety of subjects and styles. Aurora Leigh (1857) is a novel in verse (11,000 lines) about a woman writer—one of the boldest and most audacious experiments in English poetry. The “novel in verse” combines the subject matter of fiction (and in this case autobiography) and the manner of narrative or dramatic poetry in blank verse. The only notable precursor is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1823—1831), which uses a rhymed fourteen-lined stanza. (Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had teased Wordsworth, whose example “shows / That prose is verse, and verse is merely prose.”) Elizabeth Barrett Browning reserved her rhymed verse for lyrics and meditations; for a more sustained examination of character and thought, the scope of the novel was more appropriate, although without the subdued interest of prose. A reader pleased with the results in Aurora Leigh may experience the best of both worlds.


Aurora Leigh, be humble. Shall I hope

To speak my poems in mysterious tune

With man and nature,—with the lava-lymph

That trickles from successive galaxies

Still drop by drop adown the finger of God,

In still new worlds?—with summer-days in this,

That scarce dare breathe, they are so beautiful?—

With spring’s delicious trouble in the ground

Tormented by the quickened blood of roots.

And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves

In token of the harvest-time of flowers?—

With winters and with autumns,—and beyond,

With the human heart’s large seasons,—when it hopes

And fears, joys, grieves, and loves?—with all that strain

Of sexual passion, which devours the flesh

In a sacrament of souls? with mother’s breasts,

Which, round the new made creatures hanging there,

Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres?—

With multitudinous life, and finally

With the great out-goings of ecstatic souls,

Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame,

Their radiant faces upward, burn away

This dark of the body, issuing on a world

Beyond our mortal?—can I speak my verse

So plainly in tune to these things and the rest,

That men shall feel it catch them on the quick,

As having the same warrant over them

To hold and move them, if they will or no,

Alike imperious as the primal rhythm

Of that theurgic nature? I must fail,1

Who fail at the beginning to hold and move

One man,—and he my cousin, and he my friend,

And he born tender, made intelligent,

Inclined to ponder the precipitous sides

Of difficult questions; yet, obtuse to me,—

Of me, incurious! likes me very well,

And wishes me a paradise of good,

Good looks, good means, and good digestion!—ay,

But otherwise evades me, puts me off

With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness,—

Too light a book for a grave man’s reading! Go,

Aurora Leigh: be humble.

There it is;

We women are too apt to look to one,

Which proves a certain impotence in art.

We strain our natures at doing something great,

Far less because it’s something great to do,

Than, haply, that we, so, commend ourselves

As being not small, and more appreciable

To some one friend. We must have mediators

Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge;

Some sweet saint’s blood must quicken in our palms.

Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold:

Good only, being perceived as the end of good,

And God alone pleased,—that’s too poor, we think,

And not enough for us, by any means.

Ay—Romney, I remember, told me once

We miss the abstract, when we comprehend!

We miss it most when we aspire, … and fail.

Yet, so, I will not.—This vile woman’s way

Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up.

I’ll have no traffic with the personal thought

In art’s pure temple. Must I work in vain,

Without the approbation of a man?

It cannot be; it shall not. Fame itself,

That approbation of the general race,

Presents a poor end, (though the arrow speed,

Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white,)

And the highest fame was never reached except

By what was aimed above it. Art for art,

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;

And if we fail … . But must we?—

Shall I fail?

The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase,

“Let no one be called happy till his death.”

To which I add,—Let no one till his death

Be called unhappy. Measure not the work

Until the day’s out and the labour done;

Then bring your gauges. If the day’s work’s scant,

Why, call it scant; affect no compromise;

And, in that we have nobly striven at least,

Deal with us nobly, women though we be,

And honour us with truth, if not with praise.

My ballads prospered; but the ballad’s race

Is rapid for a poet who bears weights

Of thought and golden image. He can stand

Like Atlas, in the sonnet,—and support

His own heavens pregnant with dynastic stars;

But then he must stand still, nor take a step.

In that descriptive poem called “The Hills,”

The prospects were too far and indistinct.

’Tis true my critics said, “A fine view, that!”

The public scarcely cared to climb the book

For even the finest; and the public’s right,

A tree’s mere firewood, unless humanised;

Which well the Greeks knew, when they stirred the bark

With close-pressed bosoms of subsiding nymphs,

And made the forest-rivers garrulous

With babble of gods. For us, we are called to mark

A still more intimate humanity

In this inferior nature,—or, ourselves,

Must fall like dead leaves trodden underfoot

By veritabler artists. Earth shut up

By Adam, like a fakir in a box

Left too long buried, remained stiff and dry,

A mere dumb corpse, till Christ the Lord came down,

Unlocked the doors, forced open the blank eyes,

And used his kingly chrisms to straighten out

The leathery tongue turned back into the throat:

Since when, she lives, remembers, palpitates

In every lip, aspires in every breath,

Embraces infinite relations. Now,

We want no half-gods, Panomphæan Joves,2

Fauns, Naiads, Tritons, Oreads, and the rest,

To take possession of a senseless world

To unnatural vampire-uses. See the earth,

The body of our body, the green earth,

Indubitably human, like this flesh

And these articulated veins through which

Our heart drives blood! There’s not a flower of spring,

That dies ere June, but vaunts itself allied

By issue and symbol, by significance

And correspondence, to that spirit-world

Outside the limits of our space and time,

Whereto we are bound. Let poets give it voice

With human meanings; else they miss the thought,

And henceforth step down lower, stand confessed

Instructed poorly for interpreters,—

Thrown out by an easy cowslip in the text.

Even so my pastoral failed: it was a book

Of surface-pictures—pretty, cold, and false

With literal transcript,—the worse done, I think,

For being not ill-done. Let me set my mark

Against such doings, and do otherwise.

This strikes me. If the public whom we know,

Could catch me at such admissions, I should pass

For being right modest. Yet how proud we are,

In daring to look down upon ourselves!

The critics say that epics have died out

With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods—

I’ll not believe it. I could never dream

As Payne Knight did, (the mythic mountaineer

Who travelled higher than he was born to live,

And showed sometimes the goitre in his throat

Discoursing of an image seen through fog,)

That Homer’s heroes measured twelve feet high.

They were but men!—his Helen’s hair turned grey

Like any plain Miss Smith’s, who wears a front:

And Hector’s infant blubbered at a plume

As yours last Friday at a turkey-cock.

All men are possible heroes: every age,

Heroic in proportions, double-faced,

Looks backward and before, expects a morn

And claims an epos.

Ay, but every age

Appears to souls who live in it, (ask Carlyle)

Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours!

The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound

Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:

A pewter age,—mixed metal, silver-washed;

An age of scum, spooned off the richer past;

An age of patches for old gabardines;

An age of mere transition, meaning nought,

Except that what succeeds must shame it quite,

If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,

And wrong thoughts make poor poems.

Every age,

Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned

By those who have not lived past it. We’ll suppose

Mount Athos carved, as Persian Xerxes schemed,

To some colossal statue of a man:

The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear,

Had guessed as little of any human form

Up there, as would a flock of browsing goats.

They’d have, in fact, to travel ten miles off

Or ere the giant image broke on them,

Full human profile, nose and chin distinct,

Mouth, muttering rhythms of silence up the sky,

And fed at evening with the blood of suns;

Grand torso,—hand, that flung perpetually

The largesse of a silver river down

To all the country pastures. ’Tis even thus

With times we live in,—evermore too great

To be apprehended near.

But poets should

Exert a double vision; should have eyes

To see near things as comprehensibly

As if afar they took their point of sight,

And distant things, as intimately deep,

As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.

I do distrust the poet who discerns

No character or glory in his times,

And trundles back his soul five hundred years,

Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,

Oh not to sing of lizards or of toads

Alive i’ the ditch there!—’twere excusable;

But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,

Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,

As dead as must be, for the greater part,

The poems made on their chivalric bones.

And that’s no wonder: death inherits death.

Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world

A little overgrown, (I think there is)

Their sole work is to represent the age,

Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,

That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,

And spends more passion, more heroic heat,

Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,

Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.

To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,

Cry out for togas and the picturesque,

Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self

Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;

And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat,

As Regent street to poets.

Never flinch,

But still, unscrupulously epic, catch

Upon a burning lava of a song,

The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:

That, when the next shall come, the men of that

May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say

“Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!

That bosom seems to beat still, or at least

It sets ours beating. This is living art,

Which thus presents, and thus records true life.”

What form is best for poems? Let me think

Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,

As sovran nature does, to make the form;

For otherwise we only imprison spirit,

And not embody. Inward evermore

To outward,—so in life, and so in art,

Which still is life.

Five acts to make a play.

And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?

What matter for the number of the leaves,

Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact

The literal unities of time and place,

When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore

Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire

And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.

’Tis true the stage requires obsequiousness

To this or that convention; “exit” here

And “enter” there; the points for clapping, fixed,

Like Jacob’s white-peeled rods before the rams;

And all the close-curled imagery clipped

In manner of their fleece at shearing time.

Forget to prick the galleries to the heart

Precisely at the fourth act,—culminate

Our five pyramidal acts with one act more,—

We’re lost so! Shakspeare’s ghost could scarcely plead

Against our just damnation. Stand aside;

We’ll muse for comfort that, last century,

On this same tragic stage on which we have failed,

A wigless Hamlet would have failed the same.

And whosoever writes good poetry,

Looks just to art. He does not write for you

Or me,—for London or for Edinburgh;

He will not suffer the best critic known

To step into his sunshine of free thought

And self-absorbed conception, and exact

An inch-long swerving of the holy lines.

If virtue done for popularity

Defiles like vice, can art for praise or hire

Still keep its splendour, and remain pure art?

Eschew such serfdom. What the poet writes,

He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits,

And that’s success: if not, the poem’s passed

From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,

Until the unborn snatch it, crying out

In pity on their fathers’ being so dull,

And that’s success too.

I will write no plays.

Because the drama, less sublime in this,

Makes lower appeals, defends more menially,

Adopts the standard of the public taste

To chalk its height on, wears a dog chain round

Its regal neck, and learns to carry and fetch

The fashions of the day to please the day;

Fawns close on pit and boxes, who clap hands,

Commending chiefly its docility

And humour in stage-tricks; or else indeed

Gets hissed at, howled at, stamped at like a dog,

Or worse, we’ll say. For dogs, unjustly kicked,

Yell, bite at need; but if your dramatist

(Being wronged by some five hundred nobodies

Because their grosser brains most naturally

Misjudge the fineness of his subtle wit)

Shows teeth an almond’s breath, protests the length

Of a modest phrase,—“My gentle countrymen,

There’s something in it, haply of your fault,”—

Why then, besides five hundred nobodies,

He’ll have five thousand, and five thousand more,

Against him,—the whole public,—all the hoofs

Of King Saul’s father’s asses, in full drove,—

And obviously deserve it. He appealed

To these,—and why say more if they condemn,

Than if they praised him?—Weep, my Æschylus,

But low and far, upon Sicilian shores!

For since ’twas Athens (so I read the myth)

Who gave commission to that fatal weight,

The tortoise, cold and hard, to drop on thee

And crush thee,—better cover thy bald head;

She’ll hear the softest hum of Hyblan bee3

Before thy loud’st protesting.—For the rest,

The risk’s still worse upon the modern stage;

I could not, in so little, accept success,

Nor would I risk so much, in ease and calm,

For manifester gains; let those who prize,

Pursue them: I stand off.

And yet, forbid,

That any irreverent fancy or conceit

Should litter in the Drama’s throne-room, where

The rulers of our art, in whose full veins

Dynastic glories mingle, sit in strength

And do their kingly work,—conceive, command,

And, from the imagination’s crucial heat,

Catch up their men and women all a-flame

For action all alive, and forced to prove

Their life by living out heart, brain, and nerve,

Until mankind makes witness, “These be men

As we are,” and vouchsafes the kiss that’s due

To Imogen and Juliet—sweetest kin

On art’s side.

’Tis that, honouring to its worth

The drama, I would fear to keep it down

To the level of the footlights. Dies no more

The sacrificial goat, for Bacchus slain,—

His filmed eyes fluttered by the whirling white

Of choral vestures,—troubled in his blood

While tragic voices that clanged keen as swords,

Leapt high together with the altar-flame,

And made the blue air wink. The waxen mask,

Which set the grand still front of Themis’ son

Upon the puckered visage of a player;—

The buskin, which he rose upon and moved,

As some tall ship, first conscious of the wind,

Sweeps slowly past the piers;—the mouthpiece, where

The mere man’s voice with all its breaths and breaks

Went sheathed in brass, and clashed on even heights

Its phrasèd thunders;—these things are no more,

Which once were. And concluding, which is clear,

The growing drama has outgrown such toys

Of simulated stature, faces and speech,

It also, peradventure, may outgrow

The simulation of the painted scene,

Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume;

And take for a worthier stage the soul itself,

Its shifting fancies and celestial lights,

With all its grand orchestral silences

To keep the pauses of the rhythmic sounds.

Alas, I still see something to be done,

And what I do falls short of what I see,

Though I waste myself on doing. Long green days,

Worn bare of grass and sunshine,—long calm nights,

From which the silken sleeps were fretted out,—

Be witness for me, with no amateur’s

Irreverent haste and busy idleness

I’ve set myself to art! What then? what’s done?

What’s done, at last?

Behold, at last, a book.

If life-blood’s necessary,—which it is,

(By that blue vein athrob on Mahomet’s brow,

Each prophet-poet’s book must show man’s blood!)

If life-blood’s fertilising, I wrung mine

On every leaf of this,—unless the drops

Slid heavily on one side and left it dry.

That chances often: many a fervid man

Writes books as cold and flat as grave-yard stones

From which the lichen’s scraped; and if St. Preux

Had written his own letters, as he might,

We had never wept to think of the little mole

’Neath Julie’s drooping eyelid. Passion is

But something suffered, after all.

While art

Sets action on the top of suffering:

The artist’s part is both to be and do,

Transfixing with a special, central power

The flat experience of the common man,

And turning outward, with a sudden wrench,

Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing

He feels the inmost: never felt the less

Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn

For burning next reflectors of blue steel,

That he should be the colder for his place

’Twixt two incessant fires,—his personal life’s,

And that intense refraction which burns back

Perpetually against him from the round

Of crystal conscience he was born into

If artist born? O sorrowful great gift

Conferred on poets, of a twofold life,

When one life has been found enough for pain!

We staggering ’neath our burden as mere men,

Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods,

Support the intolerable strain and stress

Of the universal, and send clearly up

With voices broken by the human sob,

Our poems to find rhymes among the stars!

But soft!—a “poet” is a word soon said;

A book’s a thing soon written. Nay, indeed,

The more the poet shall be questionable,

The more unquestionably comes his book!

And this of mine,—well, granting to myself

Some passion in it, furrowing up the flats,

Mere passion will not prove a volume worth

Its gall and rags even. Bubbles round a keel

Mean nought, excepting that the vessel moves.

There’s more than passion goes to make a man,

Or book, which is a man too.

I am sad:

I wonder if Pygmalion had these doubts,

And, feeling the hard marble first relent,

Grow supple to the straining of his arms,

And tingle through its cold to his burning lip,

Supposed his senses mocked, and that the toil

Of stretching past the known and seen, to reach

The archetypal Beauty out of sight,

Had made his heart beat fast enough for two,

And with his own life dazed and blinded him!

Not so; Pygmalion loved,—and whoso loves

Believes the impossible.

And I am sad:

I cannot thoroughly love a work of mine,

Since none seems worthy of my thought and hope

More highly mated. He has shot them down,

My Phoebus Apollo, soul within my soul,

Who judges by the attempted, what’s attained,

And with the silver arrow from his height,

Has struck down all my works before my face,

While I say nothing. Is there aught to say?

I called the artist but a greatened man:

He may be childless also, like a man.

I laboured on alone. The wind and dust

And sun of the world beat blistering in my face;

And hope, now for me, now against me, dragged

My spirits onward,—as some fallen balloon,

Which, whether caught by blossoming tree or bare,

Is torn alike. I sometimes touched my aim,

Or seemed,—and generous souls cried out, “Be strong,

Take courage; now you’re on our level,—now!

The next step saves you!” I was flushed with praise,

But, pausing just a moment to draw breath,

I could not choose but murmur to myself

“Is this all? all that’s done? and all that’s gained?

If this then be success, ’tis dismaller

Than any failure.”

O my God, my God,

O supreme Artist, who as sole return

For all the cosmic wonder of Thy work,

Demandest of us just a word … a name,

“My Father!”—thou hast knowledge, only thou,

How dreary ’tis for women to sit still

On winter nights by solitary fires,

And hear the nations praising them far off;

Too far! ay, praising our quick sense of love,

Our very heart of passionate womanhood,

Which could not beat so in the verse without

Being present also in the unkissed lips,

And eyes undried because there’s none to ask

The reason they grew moist.

To sit alone,

And think, for comfort, how, that very night,

Affianced lovers, leaning face to face

With sweet half-listenings for each other’s breath,

Are reading haply from some page of ours,

To pause with a thrill, as if their cheeks had touched,

When such a stanza, level to their mood,

Seems floating their own thoughts out—“So I feel

For thee,” “And I, for thee: this poet knows

What everlasting love is!”—how, that night,

A father, issuing from the misty roads

Upon the luminous round of lamp and hearth

And happy children, having caught up first

The youngest there until it shrunk and shrieked

To feel the cold chin prick its dimple through

With winter from the hills, may throw i’ the lap

Of the eldest, (who has learnt to drop her lids

To hide some sweetness newer than last year’s)

Our book and cry, … “Ah you, you care for rhymes;

So here be rhymes to pore on under trees,

When April comes to let you! I’ve been told

They are not idle as so many are,

But set hearts beating pure as well as fast:

It’s yours, the book: I’ll write your name in it,—

That so you may not lose, however lost

In poet’s lore and charming reverie,

The thought of how your father thought of you

In riding from the town.”

To have our books

Appraised by love, associated with love,

While we sit loveless! is it hard, you think?

At least ’tis mournful. Fame, indeed, ’twas said,

Means simply love. It was a man said that.

And then there’s love and love: the love of all

(To risk, in turn, a woman’s paradox,)

Is but a small thing to the love of one.

You bid a hungry child be satisfied

With a heritage of many corn-fields: nay,

He says he’s hungry,—he would rather have

That little barley-cake you keep from him

While reckoning up his harvests. So with us;

(Here, Romney, too, we fail to generalise!)

We’re hungry.

Hungry! but it’s pitiful

To wail like unweaned babes and suck our thumbs

Because we’re hungry. Who, in all this world,

(Wherein we are haply set to pray and fast,

And learn what good is by its opposite)

Has never hungered? Woe to him who has found

The meal enough: if Ugolino’s full,

His teeth have crunched some foul unnatural thing:

For here satiety proves penury

More utterly irremediable. And since

We needs must hunger,—better, for man’s love,

Than God’s truth! better, for companions sweet,

Than great convictions! let us bear our weights,

Preferring dreary hearths to desert souls.

Well, well, they say we’re envious, we who rhyme;

But I, because I am a woman, perhaps,

And so rhyme ill, am ill at envying.

I never envied Graham his breadth of style,

Which gives you, with a random smutch or two,

(Near-sighted critics analyse to smutch)

Such delicate perspectives of full life;

Nor Belmore, for the unity of aim

To which he cuts his cedarn poems, fine

As sketchers do their pencils; not Mark Gage,

For that caressing colour and trancing tone

Whereby you’re swept away and melted in

The sensual element, which, with a back wave,

Restores you to the level of pure souls

And leaves you with Plotinus. None of these,

For native gifts or popular applause,

I’ve envied; but for this,—that when, by chance,

Says some one,—“There goes Belmore, a great man!

He leaves clean work behind him, and requires

No sweeper up of the chips,” … a girl I know,

Who answers nothing, save with her brown eyes,

Smiles unawares, as if a guardian saint

Smiled in her:—for this, too,—that Gage comes home

And lays his last book’s prodigal review

Upon his mother’s knees, where, years ago,

He had laid his childish spelling-book and learned

To chirp and peck the letters from her mouth,

As young birds must. “Well done,” she murmured then,

She will not say it now more wonderingly;

And yet the last “Well done” will touch him more,

As catching up to-day and yesterday

In a perfect chord of love; and so, Mark Gage,

I envy you your mother!—and you, Graham,

Because you have a wife who loves you so,

She half forgets, at moments, to be proud

Of being Graham’s wife, until a friend observes,

“The boy here, has his father’s massive brow,

Done small in wax … if we push back the curls.”

Who loves me? Dearest father,—mother sweet,—

I speak the names out sometimes by myself,

And make the silence shiver: they sound strange,

As Hindostanee to an Ind-born man

Accustomed many years to English speech;

Or lovely poet-words grown obsolete,

Which will not leave off singing. Up in heaven

I have my father,—with my mother’s face

Beside him in a blotch of heavenly light;

No more for earth’s familiar household use,

No more! The best verse written by this hand,

Can never reach them where they sit, to seem

Well-done to them. Death quite unfellows us,

Sets dreadful odds betwixt the live and dead,

And makes us part as those at Babel did,

Through sudden ignorance of a common tongue.

1. theurgic: relating to sorcery or divine working.

2. Panomphæan: of or pertaining to Zeus, as sender of all ominous voices. (OED)

3. Hyblan: usually Hyblaean; pertaining to Hybla in Sicily, famous for honey.