“Since when was genius found respectable?” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It’s her birthday today.

I have a beautiful red-leather bound copy of The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, bought at a second-hand store. The publication date is 1882, with a foreword by Mrs. Browning herself. She died in 1861, so this is obviously a reprint (her husband Robert Browning was responsible for bringing out a lot of her work posthumously), but a beautiful book from another time and era. The pages have that slick texture that old books have, with the print clearly indented into the page. The print is dauntingly small, but it’s a beautiful object, and I am pleased that it is in my library.

You can’t believe how prolific Browning was, just thumbing through the pages. Some of her poems are 200 pages long. She was in a narrative tradition, and she certainly wrote Sonnets and shorter poems, but the focus and intensity it must have taken to write an “Aurora Leigh”, is difficult to contemplate.

Her early gift for verse was encouraged by her father. She published her first epic poem at the age of 14. She was born in 1806, and in her 30s, she published a translation of Prometheus Bound, as well as a collection of poems in 1844 which made her famous. She was sickly, her lungs were weak, and perhaps on the road to spinster-hood, she was devoted only to her work. But poet Robert Browning read her collection of poems and set out to woo and win her, which he did. Her father disapproved. The two eloped in 1846, beginning one of the great literary love affairs of the age. It was a love match. (Their correspondence was published in full.) Both were famous, but Browning, with his long narrative poems in different voices (so funnily aped by AS Byatt in her book Possession) was far the more famous, his only rival was Tennyson. Now, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s star has risen far above her husband’s (and I’m not sure that’s exactly fair. She’s fine, but …) She did write some immortal lines, one of my favorites from “Aurora Leigh”:

For God in cursing gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction.

What a difficult thought. Sometimes I think, “Fuck you, Barrett, that’s not true.” And maybe it isn’t, at least not in every circumstance. You know, people fleeing war in refugee camps, or marching into gas chambers, etc … You know. It doesn’t really fly THERE. But sometimes I have to admit she was right.

She was famous enough that her name was mentioned as a possible poet laureate when Wordsworth died. The job went to Tennyson, but it shows you the standing she had! Both Wordsworth and Tennyson were admirers.

And then there is Ezra Pound. Pound was known for wrestling with his influences, almost angry that they had a hold on him. He was angry about everything, basically. He confronted Walt Whitman in verse, he challenged his long-dead predecessors to duels. All very macho (maybe to make up for his notoriously limp weak cold-fish handshake?)! In the Canto addressed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Ezra Pound, from the Cantos
And I discern your story : Browning’s
Peire Cardinal “Bordello”
Was half fore-runner of Dante. Arnaut’s the trick
Of the unfinished address,

And half your dates are out; you mix your eras
For that great font, Sordello sat beside —
‘Tis an immortal passage, but the font? —
Is some two centuries outside the picture

And no matter.

… it’s the “and no matter” that matters. Browning’s “dates” are “out”. In other words, she mixes eras in her poems, she screws up chronology. Pound is disappointed and angry. But then he gives it all to her, with that “And no matter”. She was very important to him.

So many of her poems are so long, dreadfully long, honestly, and there is much that I have not read. But her sonnets are amazing love poems (and her topics are far-reaching: she writes sonnets to Wordsworth, George Sand, her dog, death, etc.). Here’s one of her love sonnets.


We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both make
mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.


L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

I don’t care a hoot for Mrs. Browning.


Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 1846:

If it will satisfy you that I should know you, love you, love you – why then indeed … You should have my soul to stand on if it could make you stand higher.

William Wordsworth, on hearing of the marriage:

“Well, I hope they understand one another – nobody else would.”

Robert Browning, 1871:

The simple truth is that she was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

She was quite rapidly forgotten after her death in 1861, apart from the Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850) which she dedicated to her husband and in which the traditionally male preserve of the love sonnet became a new kind of instrument, capable of quite unexpected tonalities … Those tonalities sound in many of the love poems. Who – male or female – before her wrote in this manner?

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Feminist criticism has focused attention upon the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett, rather at the expense of her husband, Robert Browning, who nevertheless abides as one of the greatest poets in the language. I venture that academic fashion will wane (it always does) and the aesthetic inadequacies of Barrett Browning’s long poem, Aurora Leigh (1856), and of the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese (addressed to Robert, who thought she looked Portuguese) again will be apparent. Very bad also is Barrett Browning’s “The City of the Children,” where the sentiments are admirable but the expression is wearisome. In an occasional lyric, like “A Musical Instrument,” given here, Elizabeth Barrett catches fire.

Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words”:

The woman poet, unlike the majority of the woman novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would redirect material energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

…Victorian poetry, as typified by the Brownings, exalts tenderness, fidelity, and devotion, the bonds of married love, preserved beyond the grave.

Hart Crane, letter to a friend and fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

I think she is every bit as good as Elizabeth Browning…I can only say I do not greatly care for Mme. Browning.

Michael Schmidt:

Robert looms so large that he occludes Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She deserves limelight, not as the object of his romantic attention but as a significant poet herself. In her time she was prolific and very highly thought of; he lived rather in her shadow, whatever adjustments posterity has made.

Virginia Woolf (whose novel, Flush, is the story of EBB, as seen through the eyes of EBB’s dog):

[One of those] rare writers who risk themselves adventurously and disinterestedly in an imaginative life.

On a Portrait of Wordsworth
WORDSWORTH upon Helvellyn ! Let the cloud
Ebb audibly along the mountain-wind,
Then break against the rock, and show behind
The lowland valleys floating up to crowd
The sense with beauty. He with forehead bowed
And humble-lidded eyes, as one inclined
Before the sovran thought of his own mind,
And very meek with inspirations proud,
Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest
By the high altar, singing prayer and prayer

To the higher Heavens. A noble vision free
Our Haydon’s hand has flung out from the mist:
No portrait this, with Academic air !
This is the poet and his poetry.

Michael Schmidt:

How much more than her husband she trusts in the value of vowels, how much closer to Tennyson her music; yet Giulio’s seductive sophistries, which the speaker wishes to believe and we believe too, are the sophistries of a shared love and not of a seducer. There is a sexual complicity in the joy of her love poems, as though the man and the woman understandingly in love are on the same side of the language.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December, 1881:

The Brownings may be reckoned to the Romantics.

Michael Schmidt:

Ezra Pound loved Browning as only poets love – with jealousy and disappointment…What Pound loves in Browning is Italy and the play of voices (which Pound learns to weave together in the Cantos. “Sordello” is the threshold over which Pound passes, at last, into his great, contested work. It was in part Browning who made it possible for Pound to make peace with another voice of which he is made, his American precursor Walt Whitman. He resented and resisted Whitman; he read again, and resisted, but at last he makes a pact … For good or ill, Pound was made of Whitman, the American cadences ring in his ears.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last words: Her husband asked her how she felt. She responded, “Beautiful.”

Clasped Hands of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1853, by sculptor Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

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1 Response to “Since when was genius found respectable?” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  1. KathyB says:

    Living in Italy had to be better for her lungs. We saw her grave in Florence in 2000, in the Boboli gardens. Came upon it quite by accident.

    A love for the ages.

    And I am a subscriber.

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