The Books: The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry

The next book on my poetry shelf is 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 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 (one of the reasons I haven’t read the actual book), but it’s a beautiful object, and I am pleased that it is in my library.

You can’t believe how prolific this dame 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 other shorter poems, but the focus and intensity it must take 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, with bad lungs, and perhaps on the road to spinster-hood, 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. Elizabeth wrote to him in 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 commented, on hearing of the marriage:

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

Robert Browning, a poet I admire but can never love, said of his wife in 1871:

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

I think that’s rather accurate, although the opinion of the day was rather different. Both were famous, but Browning, with his long narrative poems in different voices (so funnily aped by AS Byatt in her book Possession, with the Victorian poet Randolph Ash being a clear nod to the giants of the day: Tennyson and Robert Browning) was more in line with the style of the day. Now, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s star has risen far above her husband’s. She has some immortal lines, one of my favorites being from “Aurora Leigh”:

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

What a difficult thought, something I still buck against.

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

Michael Schmidt, in the wonderful Lives of the Poets, writes:

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?

Schmidt also writes about modern-era poets who were obsessed with Browning, who helped them grow in their own work.

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 described her as one of those “rare writers who risk themselves adventurously and disinterestedly in an imaginative life.” Woolf’s novel Flush is the story of Elizabeth up to her elopement, told by the dog to whom the poet devoted a witty, sentimental poem.

And then there is Ezra Pound. Pound was known for wrestling with his influences, almost angry that they had a hold on him. He confronted Walt Whitman in verse, he challenged his predecessors to duels (through his poetry). Schmidt writes:

Ezra Pound loved Browning as only poets love – with jealousy and disappointment.

He confronts her in one of his Cantos, in regards to one of her poems about Italy:

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 really matters. Browning’s “dates” are “out”. She is mixing eras in her poems. Pound seems disappointed and angry. But then he gives it all to her, with “And no matter”. She was very important to his development.

So many of her poems are so long, and there is much that I have not read. But her sonnets can be amazing love poems (although her topics are far-reaching – she writes sonnets to Wordsworth, George Sand, her dog, death, etc.) , so I’ll post one of those love sonnets today.


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.

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7 Responses to The Books: The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  1. Charles J. Sperling says:

    In *Venus on the Half-Shell,* Philip Jose Farmer posing as Kilgore Trout (not unlike Einstein disguised as Robin Hood in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” wherein Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fight), has the Space Wanderer describe Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a minor Victorian poet married to Robert Browning, a major Victorian poet.

    I thought that was posterity’s verdict, but my friend Gina Prosch is very fond of *Aurora Leigh* and you’ve certainly given me much to think about. Heaven knows, I was embarrassed recently to be writing a story recently in which a long-married couple were quoting the Brownings to one another, and all I could think of from Elizabeth was the famous “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” sonnet.

    (As you know, lines from it are engraved in Mitch’s cigarette case in *A Streetcar Named Desire* and Blanche DuBois says it’s from her favorite sonnet from Mrs. Browning.)

    In his diaries, Edward Fitzgerald wrote rather callously of Elizabeth’s death: when Robert read them, some twenty years after the event, he wrote some sharp verses in reply:

    “To Edward Fitzgerald”

    “I chanced upon a new book yesterday,
    I opened it, andwhere my finger lay
    ‘Twist page and uncut page, these words I read —
    Some six or seven at most — and learned thereby
    That you, Fitzgerald, whom by ear and eye
    She never knew, ‘thanked God my wife was dead.’
    Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
    How to return you thanks would task my wits.
    Kicking you seems the common lot of curs —
    While more appropriate greeting lends you grace,
    Surely to spit there glorifies your face —
    Spitting from lips once sanctified by hers.”

    I wonder whether Carol Ann Duffy offered up a prayer to Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she became the first woman to become Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. I’d like to think so. It’s like Janis Joplin sweeping the grave of Bessie Smth.

  2. sheila says:

    Charles – wow! That poem to Fitzgerald!!!! Amazing!

    I like her a lot. And I like the comparison with Janis Joplin – it would be nice if Carol Duffy had a moment remembering that Victorian poet who had been considered for the job.

  3. Catherine says:

    A little disingenuous of me to comment about Robert Browning on a post about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but a friend of mine alerted me to the recording of Browning and I am completely obsessed with it. Have you heard it? On one level, it’s just astonishing that we actually have a recording of him speaking – how many poets of that era have we actual recordings of? Very few. It’s a fascinating historical document. But on another level, it’s just fucking hilarious.

    He’s handed the phonograph at a dinner party (at a table where the wine, I’d say, was flowing freely) and begins to recite ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’. The old dear forgets the words to his own poem, and faced with the momentous occasion of recording his speech for posterity, decides to just pronounce his name as clearly as he can. “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t remember me own verses. But one thing I shall remember all my life is this astonishing moment but your wonderful invention. [pause] ROBERT. BROWNING.”

    A brief, incongruous, treat.

  4. nightfly says:

    ROBERT. BROWNING. Essentially, signing his name to the recording. Lovely.

  5. sheila says:

    Oh Catherine, what a magnificent find.

  6. A few years ago, a small theater in NYC did a very effective dramatization of Aurora Leigh that made me realize how contemporary and moving it’s message is. The recording of Robert Browning reading “How They Brought the Good News…” is available on CD from England–I think the British Museum or the National Library–I have them but not currently with me. Eliot, Frost, Yeats are also represented.

  7. sheila says:

    Anne – I’m bummed, I wish I could have seen that Aurora Leigh – makes me want to read it again!

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