The Poetry Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By H. T. Tuckerman (From Thoughts on the Poets.)

GENUINE verse is an excellent safety-valve. I once heard the publication of a lady's effusions regretted by one of her sex, on the ground that she had printed her soul. The objection is not without significance to a refined nature, but its force is much diminished by the fact that poetry is caviar to the general. It is the few alone who possess any native relish for the muse, and a still more select audience who can trace the limits between fancy and the actual, or discover the separate fruits of personal experience and mere observation. Those capable of thus identifying the emanations of the mind with traits of character, and recognizing the innate desires or peculiar affections of a writer, and plucking out the heart of his mystery, will be the very ones to reverence his secret, or at least to treat it with delicacy. The truth is, no one can reach the fountains of emotion in another, except through sympathy -- and there is a freemasonry, an instinctive mutual understanding thus awakened, which makes the revelation sacred. Accordingly there is little danger of a compromise of self-respect in uttering to the world our inward life, if any proper degree of tact and dignity is observed. The lovers of poetry are thus gratified; the deeper sentiments and higher aspirations of the universal heart are confirmed; solace is afforded the unhappy by confessions of kindred sorrow -- and all the while, the privacy of the individual is uninvaded. At the same time, let us acknowledge that authorship, as a career, is undesirable for a woman. Only when duty lends her sanction, or pre-eminent gifts seem almost to anticipate destiny, can the most brilliant exhibition of talent add to the intrinsic graces or true influence of the sex. There are circumstances, however, which not only justify but ennoble publicity. There are situations in life which in a manner evoke from retirement those whose tastes are all for seclusion. If we look narrowly into the history of those with whose thoughts and feelings literature has made us most intimate, it will often appear that in them there was combined a degree of sensibility and reflection which absolutely, by the very law of the soul, must find a voice, and that it was the pressure of some outward necessity, or the pain of some inward void that made that voice -- (fain to pour itself out in low and earnest tones) -- audible to all mankind. Some one has said that fame is love disguised. The points of a writer are usually those wherein he has been most alone; and they owe their effect to the vividness of expression which always results from conscious self-reliance. Literary vanity is a frequent subject of ridicule; but many confound a thirst for recognition with a desire for praise. The former is a manly as well as a natural sentiment. Indeed there is something noble in the feeling which leads an ardent mind -- looking in vain for a response to its oracles among the fellow-creatures amid which its lot is cast -- to appeal to a wider circle and send its messages abroad on the wings of the press, in the hope and faith that some heart will leap' at the tidings and accept them as its own. I am persuaded that this truly human craving for sympathy and intelligent communion, is frequently mistaken for a weaker and more selfish appetite -- the morbid love of fame. High-toned and sensitive beings invariably find their most native aliment in personal associations. They are sufficiently aware that notoriety profanes, that the nooks, and not the arena of life, afford the best refreshment. It is usually because poverty, ill-health, domestic trial, political tyranny, or misplaced affection, has deprived their hearts of a complete sanctuary, that they seek for usefulness and honor in the fields of the world.

My poems, says Mrs. Browning, while full of faults, as I go forward to my critics and confess, have my soul and life in them. We gather from other hints in the preface and especially from her poetry itself, that the life of which it is the completest expression attainable, has been one of unusual physical suffering, frequent, loneliness and great study. As a natural result there is a remarkable predominance of thought and learning, even in the most inartificial overflow of her muse. Continually we are met by allusions which indicate familiarity with classic lore. Her reveries are imbued with the spirit of antique models. The scholar is everywhere co-evident with the poet. In this respect Mrs. Browning differs from Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Norton, in whose effusions enthusiasm gives the tone and color. In each we perceive a sense of beauty and the pathos born of grief, but in the former these have a statuesque, and in the two latter a glowing development. The cheerfulness of Mrs. Browning appears the fruit of philosophy and faith. She labors to reconcile herself to life through wisdom and her religious creed, and justifies tenderness by reason. This is a rather masculine process. The intellect is the main agent in realizing such an end. Yet discipline and isolation explain it readily; and the poetess doubtless speaks from consciousness when she declares the object of her art to vindicate the necessary relation of genius to suffering and self-sacrifice. The defect of poetry thus conceived is the absence of spontaneous, artless and exuberant feeling. There is a certain hardness and formality, a want of abandon of manner, a lack of gushing melody, such as takes the sympathies captive at once. We are conscious, indeed -- painfully conscious -- that strong feeling is here at work, but it is restrained, high-strung and profound. The human seems to find no natural repose, and strives, with a tragic vigor that excites admiration, to anticipate its spiritual destiny even while arrayed in mortal habiliments. Without subscribing to her theology we respect her piety. Angelic patience is the lesson she teaches with skill and eloquence. She would have the soul ever nobler than its mood. In her isolation and pain she communed with bards and sages, and found in their noble features, encouragement such as petty joys failed to give. She learned to delight in the ideals of humanity, and gaze with awe and love on their

Sublime significance of mouth, Dilated nostrils full of youth, And forehead royal with the truth.

In her view,

Life treads on life and heart on heart -- We press too close in church and mart, To keep a dream or grave apart.

And from all this she turns to herself, and cherishes her individuality with a kind of holy pride. She seeks in the ardent cultivation of her intellectual resources a solace for the wounds and privations of life. She reflects intensely-traces the footsteps of heroes -- endeavors to make the wisdom of the Past and the truths of God her own and finds a high consolation in embodying the fruits of this experience in verse:

In my large joy of sight and touch, Beyond what others count as such, I am content to suffer much.

It would argue a strange insensibility not to recognize a redeeming beauty in such an example. Mrs. Browning is an honor to her sex, and no member thereof can fail to derive advantage from the spirit of her muse. It speaks words of heroic cheer, and suggests thoughtful courage, sublime resignation, and exalted hope. At the same time, we cannot but feel her incompleteness. We incline to, and have faith in less systematic phases of woman's character. There is a native tenderness and grace, a child-like play of emotion, a simple utterance, that brings more genial refreshment. We do not deprecate Mrs. Browning's lofty spirit and brave scholarship. They are alike honorable and efficient; but sometimes they overlay nature and formalize emotion, making the pathway to the heart rather too long and coldly elegant for quick and entire sympathy. Yet this very blending of sense and sensibility, learning and love, reason and emotion, will do much, and has already done much. (as we can perceive by recent criticisms,) to vindicate true sentiment and a genuine devotion to the beautiful. These glorious instincts are sternly rebuked every day under the name of enthusiasm, imagination and romance, as vain and absurd, by those who have intelligent but wholly practical minds.

The sound and vigorous thought visible in Mrs. Browning's poetry, and the self-dependence she inculcates, will command the respect and win the attention of a class who sneer at Tennyson as fantastic, and Keats as lack-lackadaisical. They may thus come to realize how the most kindling fancies and earnest love, ay, the very gentleness and idealism which they deem so false and weak, may co-exist with firm will, rare judgment, conscientiousness and truth, lending them both fire and grace, and educing from actual and inevitable ill, thoughts of comfort like these:

Think! -- the shadow on the dial For the nature most undone, Marks the passing of the trial, Proves the presence of the sun! Look! -- look up, in starry passion, To the throne above the spheres, Learn! -- the spirit's gravitation Still must differ from the tear's. Hope! -- with all the strength thou usest In embracing thy despair; Love! -- the earthly love thou losest Shall return to thee more fair; Work! -- make clear the forest tangling Of the wildest stranger land; Trust! -- the blessed death. angels Whisper Sabbath hours at hand.

Mrs. Browning's imagery is often Dantesque and Miltonic. She evinces a certain distrust of her own originality; but her tastes, both natural and acquired, obviously ally her to the more thoughtful and rhetorical poets. In the " Drama of Exile" are numerous passages, born of the same earnest contemplations which give such grave import to the language of the sightless bard of England, and the father of Italian song. The following are examples to the purpose:

. . . . As the pine, In Norland forests, drops its weight of sorrows By a night's growth, so growing towards my ends I drop thy counsel. * * * * * * Drawing together her large globes of eyes, The light of which is throbbing in and out, Around their continuity of gaze.

Adam, as he wanders from Paradise, exclaims:

How doth the wide and melancholy earth Gather her hills around us gray and ghast, And stare with blank significance of loss Right in our faces.

Lucifer narrates an incident with singular vividness:

Dost thou remember, Adam, when the curse Took us from Eden? On a mountain peak Half-sheathed in primal woods, and glittering In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour A lion couched-part raised upon his paws, With his calm, massive face turned full on thine, And his mane listening. When the ended curse Left silence in the world, right suddenly He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff, As if the new reality of death Were dashed against his eyes -- and roared so fierce, (Such thick, carnivorous passion in his throat Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear.) And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills Such fast, keen echoes, crumbling down the oaks, To distant silence, that the forest beasts, One after one, did mutter a response In savage and in sorrowful complaint, Which trailed along the gorges. Then at once He fell back, and rolled crashing from the height, Hid by the dark-orbed pines.

Lucifer's curse is a grand specimen of blank verse. As instances of terse and meaning language, take the two brief stanzas descriptive of Petrarch and Byron. The phrase forlornly brave, applied to the latter, is very significant:

Who from his brain-lit heart hath thrown
A thousand thoughts beneath the sun,
All perfumed with the name of one.
* * * * * *
And poor, proud Byron, sad as grave,
And salt as life, forlornly brave,
And grieving with the dart he drave.

The Rhyme of the Duchess May and Bertha in the Lane are by no means perfect, artistically speaking, but they have genuine pathos. To Flush, my Dog is apt as a piece of familiar verse. Cowper's Grave and Sleep have a low, sad music, at once real and affecting; while many of the lines in Geraldine ring nobly and sweet; and in The Crowned and Wedded,The Lady's Yes, and other minor pieces, the true dignity of her sex is admirably illustrated. While thus giving Mrs. Browning due credit for her versatile talent, we repeat that, in our view, the most interesting phase of her genius is her sincere recognition of that loyalty and tenderness-that " strong necessity of loving," and that divine reality of the heart. which are essential to all that is moving in poetry and all that is winsome in experience. Could we not trace the woman beneath attainment and reflection, our admiration might be excited, but our sympathies would not awaken.

The most beautiful passages of the Drama, to our thinking, are such as these:

Adam. God! I render back Strong benediction and perpetual praise From mortal, feeble lips (as incense smoke Out of a little censer may fill heaven) That thou in striking my benumbed hands, And forcing them to drop all other boons Of beauty, and dominion and delight, Hast left this well-beloved Eve -- this life Within life, this best gift between their palms In gracious compensation! * * * * * *

O my God! In standing here between the glory and dark -- The glory of thy wrath projected forth From Eden's wall; the dark of our distress Which settles a step off in the drear world -- Lift up to thee the hands from whence have fallen Only Creation's sceptre, thanking thee That rather thou hast cast me out with her Than left me lorn of her in Paradise, With angel looks and angel songs around, To show the absence of her eyes and voice, And make society full desertness Without the uses of her comforting. * * * * * * . . . . Because with her I stand Upright as far as can be in the fall, And look away from heaven, which doth accuse me, And look up from the earth which doth convict me, Into her face; and crown my discrowned brow, Out of her love; and put the thoughts of her Around me for an Eden full of birds; And lift her body up -- thus -- to my heart; And with my lips upon her lips thus, thus Do quicken and sublimate my Mortal breath, Which cannot climb against the grave's steep sides, But overtops this grief. . . . The essence of all beauty I call love, The attribute, the evidence and end, The consummation to the inward sense Of beauty apprehended from without I still call love. . . . . . . . Mother of the world, Take heart before his presence. Rise, aspire Unto the calms and magnanimities, The lofty uses and the noble ends, The sanctified devotion and full work, To which thou art elect forevermore. First woman, wife and mother!

Source:

The Poems Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volume 1
Copyright 1853
C. S. Francis & Co., 262 Broadway, New York
Crosby & Nichols, Boston
 
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