Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: 'This Is Living Art' 1441148906, 9781441148902

For most of the twentieth century the exuberantfluency of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's art was not regarded as wort

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Table of Contents
Abbreviations
Acknowledgements
Introduction
Chapter 1
The Poet at Work
Transitions, Blanks and In-Betweens
Discipline and Improvisation
The Sonnet
Chapter 2
Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)
A Drama of Becoming
A New Tradition?
A Place to Stand and Love In
Chapter 3
Aurora Leigh
The Blank Verse Adventure
Great Freedom within Great Order
‘This is Living Art’
‘Pauses Frequent to Brokenness’
Aurora and Hamlet16
Aurora Leigh as a ‘Problem Play’
Conclusion
Bibliography
Index
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

CONTINUUM LITERARY STUDIES SERIES Also available in the series: Active Reading by Ben Knights and Chris Thurgar-Dawson Adapting Detective Fiction by Neil McCaw Beckett’s Books by Matthew Feldman Beckett and Death edited by Steve Barfield, Matthew Feldman and Philip Tew Beckett and Decay by Katherine White Beckett and Phenomenology edited by Matthew Feldman and Ulrika Maude Canonizing Hypertext by Astrid Ensslin Character and Satire in Post war Fiction by Ian Gregson Coleridge and German Philosophy by Paul Hamilton Contemporary Fiction and Christianity by Andrew Tate Ecstasy and Understanding edited by Adrian Grafe English Fiction in the 1930s by Chris Hopkins Fictions of Globalization by James Annesley Joyce and Company by David Pierce London Narratives by Lawrence Phillips Masculinity in Fiction and Film by Brian Baker Milton, Evil and Literary History by Claire Colebrook Modernism and the Post-colonial by Peter Childs Novels of the Contemporary Extreme edited by Alain-Philippe Durand and Naomi Mandel Postmodern Fiction and the Break-Up of Fiction by Hywel Dix Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon by Nick Turner Seeking Meaning for Goethe’s Faust by J. M. van der Laan Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad by Jeremy Hawthorn Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Phillip Larkin by Richard Palmer The Imagination of Evil by Mary Evans The Measureless Past of Joyce, Deleuze and Derrida by Ruben Borg The Palimpsest by Sarah Dillon Women’s Fiction 1945–2000 by Deborah Philips

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare ‘This is Living Art’ Josie Billington

Continuum Literary Studies

Continuum International Publishing Group The Tower Building 80 Maiden Lane 11 York Road Suite 704 London SE1 7NX New York NY 10038 www.continuumbooks.com © Josie Billington 2012 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Josie Billington has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. ISBN: 978-1-4411-4890-2 British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Billington, Josie, 1961  Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare : ‘This is living art’ / Josie Billington.     p. cm. - - (Continuum literary studies)  Includes bibliographical references and index.  ISBN 978-0-8264-9598-3 (hardback) 1. Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 1806-1861- -Criticism and interpreation.  2.  Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616- -Criticism and interpreation. I. Title. II.  Series.  PR4194.B55 2011   821'.8- -dc23 2011026411 Typeset by Fakenham Prepress Solutions, Fakenham, Norfolk NR21 8NN

For Tom, Matthew, Marianne and Sam

Table of Contents

Abbreviations vii Acknowledgements viii Introduction 1 Chapter 1 The Poet at Work   Transitions, Blanks and In-Betweens   Discipline and Improvisation   The Sonnet

12 12 23 34

Chapter 2 Sonnets from the Portuguese 54   A Drama of Becoming 54   A New Tradition? 62   A Place to Stand and Love In 68 Chapter 3 Aurora Leigh 84   The Blank Verse Adventure 85     Great Freedom within Great Order 87     ‘This is Living Art’ 93     ‘Pauses Frequent to Brokenness’ 98   Aurora and Hamlet 105   Aurora Leigh as a ‘problem play’ 111 Conclusion 125 Bibliography 130 Index 138

Abbreviations

BC The Browning Correspondence (Kelley and Hudson 1984–) Works The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Donaldson et al 2010) Collection The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with other Memorabilia (Kelley and Coley 2004) SP

Sonnets from the Portuguese

AL

Aurora Leigh

Sonnets

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

All references to Barrett Browning’s poetry are from Donaldson et al 2010. All references to Shakespeare’s Sonnets are from Kerrigan, 1999, and, except where specified otherwise, references to Shakespeare’s plays are from Wells and Taylor, 2001.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank colleagues and friends who read parts of this work in its early stages, and whose model as literary thinkers and readers of Shakespeare has been invaluable: Sarah Coley, Philip Davis and Simon Palfrey. I am grateful also to those who encouraged my idea for this book when I was very tentatively starting out and who offered extremely helpful pointers and direction: Alison Chapman, Sandra Donaldson, Marjorie Stone, Beverly Taylor, Herbert Tucker. Thanks are also due to Gail Marshall for first breaking ground in this area. This study would have been impossible without three key factors: firstly, Philip Kelley and Betty Coley’s Reconstruction of the Browning Collections; secondly, the equally exemplary scholarship of Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson and Scott Lewis on the Brownings’ Correspondence; thirdly, the rich resources of three fine libraries – the ArmstrongBrowning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas; New York Public Library; and Wellesley College Library, Boston. The splendid new Pickering & Chatto edition of Barrett Browning’s Collected Works was published when this study was already quite advanced but has proved a trusty resource and companion in the book’s final stages. I would also like to thank the Armstrong-Browning Library for awarding me a Visiting Fellowship, and the University of Liverpool for granting me leave to take up the Fellowship and for helping to fund library visits. Thanks are also due to Joanne Shattock for her support of my research funding applications. Finally, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the welcome and generosity extended to me by staff at the libraries I visited, and for their knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm. Thanks to: Cynthia Burgess, Christi Klempnauer, Rita Patteson, Melvin Schuetz, and Kathryn Brogdon, at Baylor; Isaac Gewirtz and Stephen Crook, at NYPL; Mariana Oller and Ruth Rogers at Wellesley. I am also grateful to these libraries, as well as to Eton College, for permission to publish extracts from Barrett Browning’s manuscripts.

Introduction

In October 1843, in response to the request from her friend and collaborator Richard Hengist Horne that she provide a ‘Biographical Sketch’, Elizabeth Barrett wrote: The public do not care enough for me to care at all for my biography. If you say anything of me … it must be as a writer of rhymes & not as the heroine of a biography … Most of my events & nearly all my intense pleasures have past in my thoughts. I wrote verses … very early … & from that day to this, poetry has been a distinct object with me – an object to read think & live for … And for the rest, you see that there is nothing to say. It is a ‘blank, my lord’.1 (BC, vii, 353–4) Written two years before the commencement of her famous correspondence and love affair with Robert Browning, the poet’s self-accounting in this letter offers a salutary check to the popular conception of Barrett Browning as ringletted invalid turned romantic heroine.2 It also presents a challenge to the academiccritical counter-narrative which emerged at the end of the twentieth century of Barrett Browning as the founder of feminist poetics. The injunction (‘it must be’) that she be regarded more as poet than person, writer than woman, creator than creature, has been largely (if inadvertently) betrayed in biographical accounts of her poetic career. The critical-ideological debate around Barrett Browning’s credentials as a feminist writer have been important and necessary over the last two decades in rescuing her work from the unjust neglect into which it had fallen in the twentieth century and in establishing the significance of her oeuvre in current configurations of Victorian culture. One consequence of the emphasis of this debate, however, is that Barrett Browning’s creative practices,

2

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

while by no means entirely neglected, have tended to be obscured.3 Although some rigorous and very valuable analyses have been undertaken of Barrett Browning’s poetic style in individual criticaltheoretical works,4 these have tended to be shaped by, or have taken second place to, varyingly polemical accounts of Barrett Browning’s ideological orientation as an artist.5 The poet’s own priorities were arguably directly the reverse. In her correspondence – one of the richest available records in the nineteenth century of creative endeavour – often minute and particular attention to the choices and procedures and of the artist-practitioner, as well as to the fundaments of literary-artistic power, overwhelmingly takes precedence over public concerns. The ‘epic of feminist self-affirmation’,6 Aurora Leigh, is one of the most extended and compelling meditations on the creative process in Victorian literature. Above all, perhaps, the extensive evidence of the original manuscript material demonstrates, as this book will show, that this was a writer who lived in the creative ‘thoughts’ which made her poetry. There are two further special reasons for seeking evidence of Barrett Browning’s inward ‘events’ and for piecing out the relative ‘blank’ of her creative biography through careful investigation of the manuscripts. First, John Ruskin’s enthusiastic appreciation of Aurora Leigh on its publication as ‘the greatest poem in the English language, unsurpassed by anything but Shakespeare’, and only by the plays, not the sonnets,7 was a response at once to the ‘speed and energy’ which Virginia Woolf8 admired in Barrett Browning’s work and to the bold originality (‘fresh, strange music’), the ‘affluent language’ and ‘new brave thought’ (BC, x, 17) which first attracted Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett’s poetry. Yet, for her contemporary audience, as for most of her twentieth century critical readers, the exuberant fluency of Barrett Browning’s art was regarded as at best an equivocal poetic virtue (see below, p. 24–5). Even in more recent sympathetic readings, the evidence for the swiftness of her wit, thought and composition remains more impressionistic than founded on firm evidence of the poet’s practice,9 and study of the original manuscripts is crucial in supporting (and, where necessary, in correcting) this view. Second, the insights provided in relation to Barrett Browning’s creative process at this first stage of composition,



Introduction 3

I wish to argue, verify the justice and vindicate the judgement of the contemporary critical reception which abundantly claimed that the poet’s work merited comparison with Shakespeare. Admiration for Sonnets from the Portuguese frequently invoked Shakespeare’s ‘history of his heart-life’10 as the standard by which to appraise Barrett Browning’s achievement,11 sometimes regarded as surpassing Shakespeare’s example in tenderness and cohesion.12 Ruskin’s estimate of the Shakespearean power of Aurora Leigh was also echoed by reviewers for whom Shakespeare’s dramatic art was the closest corresponding model for Barrett Browning’s boldness and for her ‘lavish spontaneity, a swift, uncontrollable impulse of emotional force’.13 Barrett Browning’s fast, fine and excitedly vigorous and agile imaginative intelligence, this book will argue, is Shakespearean both in its power and in the creative drive and dynamic to which it gives rise. A central contention of the book will be that for Barrett Browning, as for Shakespeare, writing was demonstrably a creative event not a second-order record of experience. For a study of Barrett Browning as a practising poet, moreover, Shakespeare is not only (as I mean to demonstrate) the most appropriate starting point: it is in many ways the most obvious. Shakespeare is the most quoted-from poet in her correspondence and a powerful presence, explicitly or otherwise, in her prose and poetry alike.14 In her detailed survey of English poetry in her series of essays, The Book of the Poets, Shakespeare ‘passes to the presidency unquestioned as the greatest artist in the world’ (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 462). The praise is by no means merely formal. Rather, the essay offers an extended public affirmation of what is abundantly apparent in letters and earlier works: that what Barrett Browning meant by ‘poetry’ finds its highest representative and model achievement in Shakespeare’s work. ‘Shakespeare! The name is the description’ (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 463). In her defence of her resurrection of an ancient text in her Preface to her first translation of Prometheus Bound, Barrett Browning wrote: The present age … is, or would be, an original age: it will not borrow thoughts with long genealogies … It would not be ‘classical’. O, that profaned name! … It does not mean what it

4

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare is made to mean: it does not mean what is necessarily regular, and polished, and unimpassioned. The ancients, especially the ancient Greeks, felt, and thought, and wrote antecedently to rules: they felt passionately, and thought daringly; and wrote because they felt and thought. Shakespeare is a more classical writer than Racine. (Works, iv, 180)

Shakespeare, like Aeschylus, was original in Barrett Browning’s particular sense of that word, meaning not simply new or non-imitative but ‘In the beginning’. No more originality now? … My hope & belief are that to be ‘original’ is as possible & not harder now, than in the first days of the creation – & that every writer who is at once true enough & strong enough to express his own individuality, is original as Shakespeare was. (BC, vi, 289) Shakespeare’s ‘seed was in himself’ (Genesis 3:15), she wrote in The Book of the Poets (Works, iv, 462), the prototype of that ‘strong and deep individuality’ (BC, vi, 78) – ‘fresh and self-originated’ (BC, vi, 128) – that she would later find in Browning, and in every poet she called ‘true’, since it partook, in existing ‘antecedently to rules’, of the energies of the Creation itself. Poetry, she said, is ‘a means of looking THRU creation up to God’ (BC, vi, 278): Any single poem not original – that is, which did not express a direct impression from nature to the mind of the writer unintermediately received & which did not convey to the reader’s mind a fresh breath or new aspect of nature, intermediately received, – such a poem I wd destroy willingly, gladly, righteously, & never look back upon its ashes. Perhaps this proves a want of modesty in me: for certainly it proves my convictions of what Poetry ought to be to assume the name, & of what poets ought to be to assume the name. (BC, vi, 288) Barrett Browning’s claims for what poetry ought to be, and for Classical and Shakespearean art as laying its foundation, were not



Introduction 5

themselves original of course.15 Indeed, the first translation of the Prometheus is commonly regarded as Barrett Browning’s female appropriation and radical revision of the Romantic tradition (Stone 1995, 71–3) to which these convictions in relation to her art clearly belong. Yet few writers can have been more immodestly free of any anxiety of influence. ‘I have left the classicists and joined the Romanticists – but I always maintain that the true classicists are the romanticists’ (BC, iii, 274). ‘We, who have no leaning to the popular cant of Romanticism and Classicism … believe the old Greek BEAUTY to be both new and old’ (Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 462). This ‘Romantically’ defiant obliteration of any and all categories to which, as poet, she might be reduced, is also its own evidence that (as Mermin has recognised, Mermin, 1989, 144) Barrett Browning did not seek distinction from these traditions, but rather connection with the essential creative life which had engendered them. Her first translation of the Prometheus, for instance, is not merely a symptom of her Romantic Hellenism, so much as the best evidence that such tendencies were learned at source. Barrett Browning read and translated Greek the better to know poetry,16 as she read Hebrew the better to know the Bible, where ‘knowing’ is really closer to Aristotelian practice or doing (‘I intend to give up Greek when I give up poetry’, BC, ii, 56). On reading Genesis in Hebrew, she said: ‘From its being a primitive language it is very interesting in a philosophical point of view. I like to find the roots of words and ideas at the same time [my emphasis]’ (BC, ii, 31). If this is Barrett Browning’s version of the Victorian obsession with primary origins,17 at another level, it is fundamentally un-Victorian so far as the period’s poetry is concerned. For while Tennyson and Arnold found themselves uneasily settling for a stale Romantic residuum,18 Barrett Browning, like the true original she was, was all-appetite for the ‘thing in itself’. Her Romantic predecessors might have handed down their belief in Shakespeare as the ‘original poetic genius’, the discoverer/progenitor, as William Hazlitt put it, of nature’s ‘original text’.19 Yet if Barrett Browning’s conception of Shakespeare as the ideal originator was not new, her will not just to see that ideal, but to be it, as a woman, absolutely was new, without precedent. Shakespeare, like Aeschylus, was the poet’s model of

6

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

having no model, a prototypical example of instinctive self-trust. ‘Shakespeare wrote from within … He is universal, because he is individual’, (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 463). Notwithstanding the centrality of Shakespeare to Barrett Browning’s work and thought – Homer and Shakespeare ‘were the colossal borderers of the two intellectual departments of the world’s age’ (Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 462) – this poet is largely omitted from accounts of the significance of Shakespeare to literature of the Victorian period, despite the burgeoning interest in this area over the last decade,20 as well as from critical works devoted to the responses of Shakespeare by women writers.21 A welcome renewed interest in Shakespeare’s influence on Barrett Browning has happened only recently,22 perhaps because there has been an understandable reluctance to engage with a tradition and discourse which, in sanctifying Barrett Browning as ‘Shakespeare’s daughter’, ‘his sister in spirit’, led to a critical neglect of her work.23 Yet in invoking Shakespeare as a term of comparison, this study does not mean to resurrect that tradition of idolatry but, on the contrary, to offer a rich and commensurate model and language – indeed the poet’s cherished own – for Barrett Browning’s distinctive creative energy and originality. Though this book takes account of the extensive biographical and literary evidence of Barrett Browning’s regard for and conscious debt to Shakespeare, its primary focus is not to survey Shakespeare’s considerable influence on the poet but to explore these writers’ analogous creative dispositions, minds and modes. The book remains ever mindful of the wealth of evidence and research relating to the breadth of literary influences on Barrett Browning’s work and the degree to which her uniqueness rests in part on the assimilated hybridity of her art. Yet it is that same flexible responsiveness and absorptive possession, intellectually and imaginatively, of a disparate range of thoughts and materials, which Barrett Browning both most admired, and most resembled, in Shakespeare. ‘We believe reverently in the miracle of his variety; and it is observable that we become aware of it less by the numerousness of his persons and their positions, than by the depth of the least of either’ (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 462). One danger of the recent critical insistence upon Elizabeth Barrett



Introduction 7

Browning’s intellectual (and particularly) political engagement with her times24 is that it can overlook the extent to which this interest, as with Shakespeare, is an aspect of the rich, generous openness of her thinking to influence and correction, even as her work expresses and endorses passionate commitment to ideas and ideals. Above all, Shakespeare is used in this book as an investigative tool to disclose Barrett Browning’s art as a dynamic engine-room of creative possibility. In Chapter 1, I consider ‘workshop’ pieces, the early experiments in dramatic mode and sonnet form which helped to engender the later and greater ones. The chapter moves chronologically in order to demonstrate that Barrett Browning’s first achievements in the sonnet form were a sudden and personally catastrophic interruption to her ambition to produce a ‘daring’ endeavour in the dramatic mode. This project was only finally fulfilled, I argue, in Aurora Leigh, but these early efforts show the emergence of a dramatic thinking, with a formal affinity to Shakespeare’s own, that was to become an architectural strategy of the later work. The chapter goes on to make extensive use of manuscript material, interleaved with the evidence from the correspondence, to establish aspects of Barrett Browning’s compositional habits and, where possible, vitally to reconstruct the act of creation as it is made visible on the manuscript page. It also uncovers the Shakespearean influence in the very earliest of Barrett Browning’s sonnets, and argues that, in her first revival of the form, in the poems she wrote following the death of her brother Edward, the poet discovered a cure for personal grief – what she was later to call in her more famous sonnet sequence, ‘antidotes of medicated music’ (SP, xvii, 5–6). Chapter 2 concentrates exclusively on that poetic form – the love sonnet sequence – which has most associated Barrett Browning’s work with Shakespeare’s and, using the only known manuscript of the sequence (newly re-discovered) as a starting point, closely teases out the relationship between the two works at the levels of language and musical tone. In addition, the chapter engages with influential recent studies of Sonnets from the Portuguese which have viewed the sequence as Barrett Browning’s trespass upon and subversion of a male poetic tradition, in which she transforms

8

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

herself from the object of another’s narrative to the subject of her own story. I argue, by contrast, that the work does not so much break with a long-standing tradition as finally complete it. Where later nineteenth-century sonnet sequences exploit to the full the opportunity for the self’s argument with itself which the sonnet formally offers, only Barrett Browning’s sequence embraces the possibilities for self-transformation inscribed in the technology of the sonnet. So radical is the act of self-origination in these sonnets that it outreaches even the dramatic possibilities of the Renaissance sonnet sequence, and is closer at one level, I shall argue, to the dynamic of character-origination and formation in Shakespearean drama. Chapter 3 discusses Barrett Browning’s Shakespearean dramatic thought, form and verse in Aurora Leigh. It demonstrates, through study of the manuscript, how the unprecedented flexibility and virtuosity of Shakespeare’s mature blank verse was peculiarly and intuitively congenial to Barrett Browning’s own greatest performance – the extended ‘soliloquy’ (as Virginia Woolf called it – see below, p. 108) of Aurora Leigh. For in language and situation, originality and alienation from social convention, I argue, Aurora is closer to Hamlet than any female Shakespearean character. Feminist orthodoxy has argued that Aurora Leigh supplants the oppressiveness of a patriarchal past with a politically female history and aesthetic (see below, pp. 84, 86, 117). My aim, by contrast, is to argue that Barrett Browning’s commitment to ‘living art’, witnessed formally in the novel-poem’s sustained immersion in a dramatic present, is the logical philosophical outcome of that commitment’s a priori centrality in her creative procedure as artist-practitioner. What makes Aurora Leigh the most Shakespearean of her works is its original excitement in relation to embodied ideas, in place of ideologies, such that ideas and practice – thinking, doing and being – are continually mobile and dynamically related aspects of one another. In the Conclusion, I consider what Barrett Browning’s unique version of ‘Victorian Shakespeare’ contributed to the literature of her own period by offering dramatic-poetic modes and forms which were radically distinguished from those of the Victorian



Introduction 9

novel. While Victorian poetry and fiction were characteristically concerned with preserving, defending or lamenting what was under threat, missing or lost in the present, Barrett Browning, almost alone as a writer of the period, persisted in finding the present all-sufficient. That is why I venture, finally, that while Virginia Woolf was Barrett Browning’s most famous and influential reader in the Modernist period, the poet-novelist D. H. Lawrence, with his own commitment to a poetics of the present, might have been a more intuitively sympathetic one.

Notes  1. See Twelfth Night, II, iv, 110 and below pp. 45–6 and note 32, p. 53.  2. For a comprehensive overview of the biographical and critical trends summarized in this paragraph, see Donaldson (1993), 1–6.  3. Significantly in this context, Paula Marantz Cohen recently lamented the degree to which ‘gender issues have dominated discussion of [Aurora Leigh]. This focus has made it more difficult for her poetry … to speak to a wider audience on more diverse issues’, ‘Commentary’, Times Literary Supplement (11 February, 2011), 14. Cohen’s remarks echo Bloom’s decrying of ‘the late twentieth-century interest in the poet as entirely the product of identity politics’ (ibid.). See Bloom 2002, 1.  4. See especially ‘Experiments in Poetic Technique’, Hayter (1962), ch. 3, 37–57; ‘A Cinderella Among the Muses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Ballad Tradition’, Stone (1995), ch. 3, 94–133.  5. See below, pp. 19, 50 (Note 4) and 62.  6. Gilbert and Gubar (1979), 575.  7. John Ruskin 1903–12, The Complete Works, 39 vols, (ed.) E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 247.  8. The Second Common Reader, 204 (see below, p. 86).  9. Although see: Philip David Sharp (1985) ‘Poetry in Process: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Sonnets Notebook’, PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, and note 2 above.

10

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

10. The Victorian orientation and response to Shakespeare’s Sonnets as autobiographic ‘history’ is discussed in Phelan (2005), 44–6, and Williams (2010), 489–90. 11. See: Review of Poems 1850, International Magazine (1851) January, 180; George William Curtis, ‘Editor’s Easy Chair’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1861) September, 555–6; John Dennis, ‘The English Sonnet’, Cornhill Magazine (1871) May, 581–98; George Smith, ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning’, Cornhill Magazine (1874) April, 469–90. 12. See Isaphene M. Luyster, ‘Mrs Browning’, Christian Examiner (1862) January, 65–88; ‘The Poetry of Mrs E. B. Browning’, Westminster Review (1882) October, 373–92. 13. See Elise Krinitz (1877) ‘Ėlizabeth Browning’, in Portraits de femmes, Paris, G. Charpentier, 231–53; Marion Couthoy, ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning’, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1878) (June), 747–53. 14. Philip Kelley’s index to the Browning Correspondence offers an at-a-glance view of the predominance of Barrett Browning’s Shakespearean allusions (vying only with biblical ones in number). The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington DC) holds an edition of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works inscribed by Robert Browning on the fly-leaf ‘The Shakespeare of E. B. B. with her girlish pencil-marks’ (see Collections A2069), corroborating (together with the evidence of the correspondence, see below p. 53, Note 32) Marshall’s summary of the history of Barrett Browning’s literary relationship with Shakespeare as the result of ‘private tuition, an intimate shared family knowledge of the writer, and through her own reading’, Marshall 2009, 45. 15. For a comprehensive history and explanation of the claims for Shakespeare as ‘original genius’ see Bate (1997), 158–86. For extended discussion of Barrett Browning’s Romantic inheritance see Stone (1995), 49–93; Mermin (1989), 33–75; Blake (1986); and Inboden (2008). 16. See Drummond (2006), 551, 557. 17. See especially, Gillian Beer (2000). 18. See for example, Herbert Tucker (1988).



Introduction 11

19. See Lobban, 86. 20. Barrett Browning’s connection to Shakespeare is more denied than affirmed by Adrian Poole: ‘It is not obvious that [Sonnets from the Portuguese] owe[s] much if anything to Shakespeare’s example’, Shakespeare and the Victorians (Poole 2004, 169 (though see note 1, p. 128 below). Reference to Barrett Browning’s reading of Shakespeare opens Marshall and Poole’s introduction to Volume 1 of Victorian Shakespeare, (Marshall and Poole, 2003), but the poet does not figure in the artist-specific chapters (see note 22 below, however). 21. Barrett Browning is absent, for example, from Novy (1990) and Thompson and Roberts (1997). 22. See Marshall (2007 and 2009). 23. See Lootens (1996), 116–17. 24. Avery and Stott (2003), chapters 4 and 7, are representative.

Chapter 1

The Poet at Work

Transitions, Blanks and In-Betweens In the period between the two volumes of poetry covered in this chapter, Barrett Browning collaborated with Richard Hengist Horne on a proposed drama Psyche Apocalypté1 (Barrett Browning and Horne, 1886), which, though drafted, was never completed. The chief interest of this aborted project here, however, is that it offers precisely the opportunity which Barrett Browning herself valued in the collaboration – ‘watching [a writer’s] “paces” ’ as she put it to Horne: ‘I want to see how you manage your creations … never having stood near any poetical edifices before […]2 except my own’ (BC, v, 18). The correspondence shows a dramatic creation (almost) coming into being. She wrote of the original conception: My idea, the terror attending spiritual consciousness, the men’s soul to the men, is something which has not I think been worked hitherto, & seems to admit of a certain grandeur & wildness in the execution. The awe of this self-consciousness, breaking with occasional sudden lurid beats through the chasms of our conventionalities has struck me, in my own self observation as a mystery of nature – very grand in itself – & is quite a distinct mystery from conscience. Conscience has to do with action (every thought being spiritual action) & not with abstract existence. There are moments when we are startled at the footsteps of our own Being, more than at the thunders of God. (BC, v, 7) Breaking through conventionality would find its fulfilled dramatic expression only later in Aurora Leigh, a work in which, as we shall



The Poet at Work 13

see in Chapter 3, the social and spiritual are held in irascible mobile connection through the intermediary of embodied character. But the seeds of Barrett Browning’s most mature achievement are already visible. The ‘sudden’ moment of spiritual terror had been explicitly rehearsed already in an earlier poem, ‘The Soul’s Travelling’: Very sad and very hoarse Certes is the flow of souls. Infinitest tendencies By the finite prest and pent, In the finite turbulent, How we tremble in surprise, When sometimes, with an awful sound, God’s great plummet strikes the ground! (7–14) In Horne’s first rough draft of Psyche, the moment, dramatically translated, became: Chorus of Heavenly Spirits (‘Guarding the living, not the dead,’ as your note has it, – say so, here, – nothing can be finer than that, simply said, and not much worked out.) The chorus ceasing, a faint sound comes at intervals, and with broken pauses. Medon speaks – with strange apprehensions as in the roots of his hair – of some invisible Presence: ‘It is some emanation from myself – Yet stands apart from me! What art thou? – speak! Be manifest – nor hold me thus disenfranchised, Between two worlds!’ Voice of Psyche (This being your special idea – E. B. B. should write all the rest of the scene.) (Psyche Apocalypté, Barrett Browning and Horne 1886, 9) Where, in the poem, ‘infinitest tendencies’ are literally brought back into line, ‘prest and pent’, by the form’s obeisance to linear

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

14

finitude – one thing after another – in the Psyche, one ‘idea’ has become two people simultaneously. The effect of the contrast is something like that between reading a Shakespeare play from the page and becoming a player within it. A two-dimensional idea is translated into three-dimensional thinking, in the fullness, intensity and articulate immediacy of embodied experience. The event of sudden spiritual ‘surprise’ becomes character, or more truly and necessarily, characters, Medon and Psyche. The draft fragment is a retrospective clue to the processes of Barrett Browning’s earlier dramatic re-imagining of the crucifixion, The Seraphim. Though inspired by ‘the conception of character’ in the Prometheus (‘Aeschylus felt the full force of his portraiture; he never removes his Prometheus from the spectator’s sight’, Works, iv, 182), this work could not simply follow its model. In her Preface to The Seraphim and Other Poems, Barrett Browning explains how the tension between, on the one hand, her ‘daring’ endeavour ‘to measure the depth of the Saviour’s humiliation not from the common estate of man but instead from his own peculiar and primeval one’ and, on the other hand, her devout timidity in the face of the sacredness of her subject matter, itself came to determine the poem’s dramatic form and personae. ‘In a manner, I have turned from my subject’, she said: ‘I have worn no shoes upon this holy ground: I have stood there but have not walked. I have drawn no copy … but have caught its shadow … glanc[ing] at it in dilated seraphic eyes’ (Works, iv, 290–1). The imagined dialogue between faith and doubt taking place inside Christ – the subject who is too sacred to be a character – produces the two angelic characters, Ador and Zerah, who articulate that spiritual dialogue from outside: Zerah: Ador: Zerah: Ador:

He hath forsaken Him. I perish. Hold Upon his name! We perish not! … He hath forsaken Him. He cannot fail. (Part the Second, 938–44)

The very opposed separation of these would-be choric voices dramatizes the contested question of divine unity which here

The Poet at Work 15



divides them. But these characters never cease to be witnessing as well as surrogate internal presences. They offer a language for the ‘peculiar, primeval’ reality of Christ: the invisible, the dread, The things we cannot view or think or speak, Because we are too happy, or too weak, – The sea of ill, for which the universe With all its pilèd space, can find no shore, With all its life, no living foot to tread! (Part the Second, 621–6) At the same time the Angels speak for the surrounding fallen world that is moved by the sight of a suffering which it cannot know: Zerah:

The pathos hath the day undone: The death-look of His eyes Hath overcome the sun And made it sicken in its narrow skies. (Part the Second, 863–6)

A similar kind of generative splitting to create (like human cells) a fuller substantial reality happens in A Drama of Exile. Barrett Browning described the subject – Eve’s sorrowing anguish in the immediate aftermath of the Fall – as one which ‘seized on me & wd not let me go until I wrote on it … I never wrote anything so fast I think’ (BC, viii, 84), as though the dramatic inhabiting of another’s spiritual consciousness were now a form of involuntary possession. But the complete human meaning of Eve’s ‘peculiar agony’ (BC, viii, 84), even as Barrett Browning finds herself imaginatively and singularly harnessed to the same, cannot stay inside or be exclusively limited to Eve’s character. Rather, under the very pressure of its fullness of emotional implication, the grief’s wider wounding breaks out of its singular embodiment to become split between Eve and Adam:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

16 Eve:

Adam:



‘Death O death, whate’er it be, is good enough For such as I am. – While for Adam here, No voice shall say again, in heaven or earth, It is not good for him to be alone.’ And was it good for such a prayer to pass, My unkind Eve, betwixt our mutual lives? If I am exiled, must I be bereaved? (534–541)

Upon a large dramatic canvas, Barrett Browning, like Shakespeare, can work quietly devastating moments of condensed explosive power. Adam’s quick pick-up of Eve’s ‘good’ is akin to Gertrude’s repetition of Hamlet’s words when, following the visitation of the Ghost, Hamlet asks ‘How is it with you lady?’ and Gertrude replies ‘Alas how is’t with you/ That you do bend your eye on vacancy?’ (III, iv, 106–7). The same words, even as they connect mother and son in a common protective solicitude, also show them to inhabit absolutely separate worlds within the same space. ‘Good’, likewise, has a mobile life and opposing meanings of its own as it moves from one character to another. Here, as with Shakespeare, words are ‘not primarily there to describe what is already known and observed’ but ‘to find out what might be present’, to be their ‘own barometer of possibility’ (Palfrey 2005, 38). The quick-passing compressed density of meaning is equally present in Adam’s tender admonition. ‘Unkind’ is contextually supercharged, in that its prefix signals not only ‘lack of’ kind[ness] but Eve’s cancelling, in her death wish, of the coupled kinship which remains to them; and as ‘My’ at once opposes and softens ‘unkind’, so ‘betwixt’, operating as a word of rift, nonetheless resonates with ‘mutual’ as a reminder of their shared lives and the healing power, paradoxically, of a shared grief. Yet, later, in a triangulation which is closer to Othello than Paradise Lost,3 a single idea is split now between Adam, Eve and Lucifer. ‘Let thy words be wounds’, says Eve (echoing 2 Henry IV, V, iv, 79), ‘For so I shall not fear thy power to hurt’:

The Poet at Work 17

Lucifer: Adam: Eve:



But why should this be? Adam pardoned Eve. Adam loved Eve. Jehovah pardon both. Adam forgave Eve – because loving Eve. (679–681)

Recent readings of the poem have inevitably and legitimately emphasized the degree to which the poem is a Christian rehabilitation of what Eve represents. ‘Eve takes her place in the postlapsarian world as the mother of promised new life and the messenger as well as example of Godly grace … not as perfect innocence, but because she has sinned, and as a result experiences, understands and demonstrates God’s salvational role of forgiveness’ (Lewis, 1998, 49). Yet, characteristically for Barrett Browning, this theology is more found, rescued even, than premeditated, out of the human pressure of the situation and the writer’s sustained dramatic immersion within it. Moreover, Eve’s increasingly authoritative and privileged voice is always held in taut tension with, and relativized and threatened by, the dramatic presence of the counter-theology which absolutely opposes it, and which is momentarily shared now between Lucifer and Adam: Lucifer:

Adam:

Who talks here of a complement of grief? Of expiation wrought by loss and fall? Of hate subduable to pity? Eve? … Behold, Your grief is but your sin in the rebound, And cannot expiate for it. That is true. (1318–34)

Adam has no power of denial. For the thought which his own grief has banished as insupportable – that his very sorrow is a part and reflex of his sin – is articulated here by sin himself. ‘We want room for our sympathies to stand up in’ (BC, iv, 275), the poet once complained in relation to a drama by Horne. Barrett Browning’s own dramatic endeavours seem to make feeling, ideas, opinions, thoughts themselves ‘stand up’ – exist and express themselves, that is, as three-dimensional experiences, within a human-dramatic geometry that is recognizably Shakespearean.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

18

Compare this moment of (displaced) thinking coming to embodied life when, in Antony and Cleopatra, Antony insists upon fighting Caesar by sea: Antony: We’ll to our ship. Away my Thetis. Enter a soldier How now, worthy soldier? Soldier: O noble Emperor, do no fight by sea. Trust not to rotten planks. Do you misdoubt This sword and these my wounds? Let th’Egyptians And the Phoenicians go a-ducking; we Have used to conquer standing on the earth, And fighting foot to foot. Antony: Well, well; away! (III, vii, 58–66) The anonymous character seems an improvised embodiment of the ‘worthy soldier’ which Antony, half-consciously, cannot be, while also being in Egypt, as Cleopatra’s lover. With only one place or space in which to be, that is, Antony cannot be two things at once. Thus the soldier literally enters that space as Antony’s displaced soldierly consciousness: his (contextually) better self-confronts him as an opposing character. The Antony which Antony himself is hiding from is thus made human and voiced in order that what is lost to Antony and the world by his limitation, is not lost to the dramatic moment, but is an expressive part of its emotional reality. ‘What is “character” in Shakespeare? It is in the first instance simply somebody occupying a space and being aware of it in it… . As events call characters into being in order to fill the space they figure out, characters simultaneously create each other through opposing balances’ (Davis 1996, 38, 40). So the multiplying characters of Barrett Browning’s early dramatic works exist in order to restore to the dramatized moment everything that belongs to it, to make visible and articulate the



The Poet at Work 19

hidden or silent presences which finite life can barely tolerate or contain. ‘Our terror before Psyche’, the poet maintained, defending her choice of subject, is not ‘barely incident [or] more alien to our humanity than a child’s or a poet’s pleasure in a daisy.’ (BC, v, 60) My point in this chapter is not that Barrett Browning’s early dramatic experiments produced Shakespearean drama; rather it is that they demonstrate a kindred form of dramatic mentality or thinking. Shakespeare ‘started by feeling out originating places … which thoughts themselves come out of’ (Davis, 2007, 12). So for Barrett Browning the order was, situation first, language and character, second, where those creations themselves were always subject to a performative process of thought in which, potentially, nothing is ever static or complete but always open to sudden movement, change and possibility. For Barrett Browning’s early dramatic works are assiduously in pursuit of an originating energy, the engine-room of life’s forces. Her purpose in The Seraphim was nothing less than the impersonation and articulation of the inner life of Christ on the Cross, at the point of imminent divinity: the creative re-imagining of the Ur-text of Christian belief. So, too, in A Drama of Exile (originally entitled ‘The First Day of Exile’) she sought ‘the first step of Humanity into the world-wilderness’, the ‘first parent’: ‘First in the transgression has been said over and over again … but first and deepest in the sorrow, nobody seems to have said, or at least written of, as conceiving’ (BC, viii, 84, 117). These big, bold, essentialist projects demanded a stamina for ‘concentration and passion – the heart and brain of the drama’ (BC, v, 24) within a dramatic present that was everywhere and nowhere. For the originating spaces are quite literal in these poems. Psyche is the dramatic shaping out of Medon’s situation ‘between two worlds’, and, as has long been recognized, the action of A Drama of Exile, situated on ‘the outer side of the gate of Eden’ (Works, i, 10) repeats the placing of the angelic vigil in The Seraphim at ‘the outer side of the shut heavenly gate’ (Works, i, 81). Critical attention to these ‘thresholds’ has tended to place Barrett Browning at the head of a female tradition in poetry where such in-between stations signify, exploit or compensate for the marginalization of the female voice in a patriarchal culture.4 But for Barrett Browning, as for Shakespeare,

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

they offered a paradoxical rich emptiness, a transitional space of creative possibility, of imminence, becoming, about to be-ness – a Shakespearean ‘blank’ to be animated and filled. So, to give an example which resonates through Chapter 2 of this book,5 when Juliet awaits the arrival of Romeo on their wedding night: ‘Come, civil night,/ Thou sober-suited matron all in black,/ And learn me how to lose a winning match/ Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods’ (Romeo and Juliet, III, ii, 10–13). In inhabiting that transitional space from girl to woman, maid to matron, in Juliet, Shakespeare shows us not only what we could never normally see – the virgin-bride, in the privacy of her wedding night, on the very brink of womanhood – but what could never even be: a maiden fully sexual and not fallen (‘Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen’, Romeo and Juliet, III, ii, 7). It is a moment coaxed and shaped from the interstices between events, a ‘surplus’ at once generated by and free from the presenting circumstance. Yet it is also the least new, most familiar, story made absolutely original again: Juliet’s first time feels like the first time. Barrett Browning equally relished the fault-line between determinacy and indeterminacy for its essentially creative possibilities. As A Drama of Exile exists to dramatize an old but equally an untold, a hidden story, in the gaps of Christian theology, so The Seraphim offers a later Christian back story, the unwritten script behind ‘My God, My God,/ Why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Part the Second, 932). Indeed, The Seraphim is a sort of bold literal experiment in what for Barrett Browning was Shakespeare’s, and poetry’s, central achievement – the interpretation and translation between two dimensions: from ‘the infinite of God’s doing into the finite of man’s comprehending’ (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 462). Yet the scenic note alone at the opening of The Seraphim (‘It is the time of the crucifixion; and the angels of heaven have departed towards the Earth, except the two Seraphim’, Works, i, 81) shows that there is not simply one Christian story here – the crucifixion, Christ’s reverseincarnation, dying out from earthly life. Rather there are two stories within the one as, in (fearfully) crossing to the human world, the Seraphim imitate in their own being the incarnation itself. ‘I go and tremble … Where man is, and the thorn./ Where sun and moon have borne/ No light to souls forlorn’ (Part the First, 114–143).



The Poet at Work 21

The point anterior to incarnation is inhabited and thence, through that quasi-incarnate vision, the moment of dying out of earthly life: And by a sharper sound than death, Mine immortality is riven. … And I know a shadow sad and broad Doth fall – doth fall On our vacant thrones in heaven. (Part the Second, 921–930) Even thus, the poem makes out of a ‘vacant’ nowhere its own ‘pilèd space’. In this dense overlap of many things out of apparently no thing, Barrett Browning was finding a way to animate in drama the meaning of the white space which exists in between poems in the rest of the volume. In ‘The Poet’s Vow’, for example, the dissociated poetic mind risks exchanging the world’s weight for an impossible to bear metaphysical one: A part beneath the whole – He bore by day, he bore by night That pressure of God’s infinite Upon his finite soul. (Part the Third, 279–82) Whole into part will not go, is Barrett Browning’s message to the poet who seeks God’s vision instead of learning ‘how to scan/ His work divine, for human use’, ‘man for man’ (Part the Second, 230–5). There is perhaps not a little self-chastening here from the poet who was later to write to Horne: ‘Do you know what it is to be shut up in a room by one’s self, to multiply one’s thoughts by one’s thoughts – how hard it is to know what “one’s thought is like” – how it grows & grows, & spreads & spreads, & ends in taking some supernatural colour’ (BC, v, 49). Yet, the import of ‘A Poet’s Vow’ is rendered immediately premature by the poem that directly follows and morally ‘pairs’ with it, ‘The Romaunt of Margret’, which seeks to show, conversely, ‘that the creature cannot be sustained by the creature’ (Preface to The Seraphim and Other Poems, Works, iv, 291). Thus the ‘pressure’ now proceeds, paradoxically, from the very feebleness of ‘the bondage … / That knits me

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

to my kind’ (‘The Poet’s Vow’, Part the First, 90–91): ‘He loved but only thee!/ That love is transient too/ … Behold, the deathworm to his heart/ Is a nearer thing than thou,/ Margret, Margret’ (‘The Romaunt of Margret’, xxiv, 209–10). The poems are set into dramatic dialogue with one another as if in illustration of their subject – each offering provisional ‘part’ understanding of a larger ‘whole’ comprehension which every true poet must both aim for and miss. Like the Angels in The Seraphim, or Adam and Eve, Medon and Psyche, these poems represent separate world-views which find they need one another. But where the individual poems remain separate, in dramatic mode the ideas they represent can be galvanized, take dynamic life, move, cross over, change places in tense dynamic interplay and have a creative ‘use’ as reciprocally corrective support for, as much as opposition to, one another. It is here that Barrett Browning first learned the dramatic art of oscillation between social and poetically oriented world-views which, as it is deployed in Aurora Leigh (see below p. 116), keeps both ideals fresh, alert, ‘living’ and in vital connection for all their apparent incompatibility. But her earliest and most daring of projects actually began in a mental gesture as tiny but as dramatic as the shift in thought from one character to another. ‘The subject … suggested itself to me’, she wrote in her 1838 Preface ‘though very faintly and imperfectly, when I was engaged upon my translation of the “Prometheus Bound” of Aeschylus’: I thought, that, had Aeschylus lived after the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, he might have turned, if not in moral and intellectual yet in poetic faith, from the solitude of Caucasus to the deeper desertness of that crowded Jerusalem where none had any pity … to the Victim, whose sustaining thought beneath an unexampled agony, was not the Titanic ‘I can revenge,’ but the celestial ‘I can forgive!’ (Works, iv, 289) The work sought not so much to Christianize the classical tradition as to take the Christian story back to its ancient ‘root’. Yet, almost as daring as the project itself is that ‘I thought’ in relation to an



The Poet at Work 23

imagined Aeschylean ‘might have’. The sentence is a miniature narrative of creative process, an illustration of how the creating mind’s tiniest movements can become that momentous surprise of fresh origination which Barrett Browning, following Coleridge, meant by ‘poetry’ and by Shakespeare: ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’.6 Yet, the dramatic mode was a form of discipline as well as a site of multiplying creative opportunities. ‘If finite minds … have a distinct locality’, Barrett Browning wrote (close to her writing of The Seraphim) ‘they must have bounds: and bounds presuppose extension (BC, iii, 157). Contextually, this is a religious-philosophical argument; yet it also summarizes drama’s dynamic. Every mind, thought, word, character, event, is a little bounded world unto itself, which ‘presupposes’ the existence of ideas, minds, bodies and worlds surrounding and beyond it (Brook 1968, 65, 96–106). The stage is a place of infinite extension, visibly and literally populated by instances of human limitation in relation to, and in verification of, that infinity. In Aurora Leigh, Barrett would use the surplus of dramatic form, bravely to test the ambitions, suppositions and beliefs upon which her creative enterprise rested.

Discipline and Improvisation A Drama of Exile headed Poems 1844, immediately succeeded by the sonnets written chronologically earlier, on the death of Barrett Browning’s brother, Edward (Bro). The arrangement of the volume repeats, therefore, the sudden and dramatic swerve from the large, ambitious endeavours which characterize the 1838 volume to a more circumscribed manoeuvring inside the tight spaces of poetry’s ‘narrow rooms’.7 The final section of this chapter will consider how Barrett Browning’s endeavours in the sonnet form in the early 1840s constitute her apprenticeship in respect of the more famous (and more demonstrably Shakespearean) sonnet sequence composed later in the decade. In this section, I want to contextualize the turn to the sonnet creatively and not simply biographically, not least because much of the strongest evidence we

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have of Barrett Browning’s creative process comes from the composition of the sonnets and thus, apparently, from a mode which is uncharacteristic of her early (and late) creative habits. In what follows I examine part of the evolution of a single poem – ‘Calls on the Heart’. Spanning 20 years from first draft to publication, the work covers territory familiar from the 1838 volume relating to the perils of a withdrawn life. Yet, especially at the stage of evolution at which it is examined here, the poem is also strongly associated, biographically, chronologically, and compositionally, with Barrett Browning’s first extensive sonnet experiments examined in detail below. Thus, the manuscript of ‘Calls on the Heart’ in the recently rediscovered notebook (now housed at the Armstrong Browning Library, and hereafter cited as ABL notebook8), offers insights into Barrett Browning’s artistic practice both before and after the early sonnets, and also during their composition. It provides, therefore, an insider view of the writer at work during an interval in which, I argue in the next section, Barrett Browning had almost to re-make herself as a poet and which, arguably therefore, was as defining as any later, more celebrated period of her career. At the same time, this poem-in-process also offers a shorthand template of, or index to, Barrett Browning’s more general compositional habits, as a context for the more detailed emphasis upon form, language and metre in Chapters 2 and 3. It helps us to judge, additionally, how far the poet’s turn to the strict sonnet form was a departure from her earlier instincts and to what degree it was continuous with and, indeed, intrinsically congenial to them. In Barrett Browning’s indignant defence of her poetry against the frequent charge, especially marked in reviews of The Seraphim, that it was ‘mannered’ and ‘stylized’, the poet abundantly corroborated the other major criticism of her work – that it was borne on the unchecked momentum of a ‘vigorous’ and ‘restless’ life, the ‘hectical’ overspill of ‘a feeling and a flow that seem to know no bounds’.9 I do not understand how anyone who writes from the real natural impulse of feeling & thought – & if I know myself, I [underscored twice] DO – can write affectedly, even in the



The Poet at Work 25 manner of it. If I live I hope & believe I shall write better – not more from natural impulse – I cannot do that – I deny that charge of affectation – but better. (BC, ii, 60) I am not conscious of the quaintness & mannerism laid to my charge, & am very sure that I have always written naturally (that is too much from the impulse of thought and feeling) to have studied attitudes. (BC, iv, 65)

‘Writing to the clock is against my nature (BC, v, 259); ‘my poetical fit continues’ (BC, vii, 242); ‘when a writer ceases to be natural, he must cease to be poetical’ (BC, i, 159). Barrett Browning’s account of creative process in her letters, and especially her formal expression of it in Aurora Leigh, have been variously and extensively reconfigured in recent years in relation to the poet’s Romantic or Spasmodic allegiances and to her Feminist poetics.10 Yet, while Barrett Browning’s avowed ‘headlong’ (BC, iii, 246; v, 184) tendencies are amply confirmed by the evidence of her original composition, the manuscripts also correct the impression that her poetic energies were merely ‘reckless’ in their freedoms and often ‘headed for shipwreck’ (BC, iv, 413, 385). They also complicate, if they corroborate at one level, the view that (responsibly or otherwise) Barrett Browning’s poetic rhythms were governed by the female body or heart.11 The relationship of matter to form for Barrett Browning, as the previous section of this chapter began to demonstrate,12 had always worked like this. First, the electric charge of content creatively powered and determined the formal shape into which content was poured: ‘I never did take any thought as to forming a style’, she wrote in one of her defences, ‘which formed itsel by force of writing, & which (without perverseness) it will be a hard thing to form anew’ (BC, iv, 60). Second, that shape, new-minted in the very instant of writing, was thereafter structurally definitive: ‘The first stanza of “The Cry of the Children” came into my head in a hurricane, & I was obliged to make the other stanzas like it’ (BC, vii, 331). Form is determined by content which in turn becomes determined by form. The subsequent authority of

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instantly new-made organic form is abundantly in evidence in the manuscript of ‘Calls on the Heart’ which appears to have been redrafted at the time the early sonnets were in process. It appears in the early pages (44–7) of the ABL notebook, which also contains on later leaves (83ff) revised fair copies of the grief sonnets (discussed in detail below), as well as a revised draft of ‘Wisdom Unapplied’, which, in their first volume publication in 1850, and always thereafter, succeeds ‘Calls on the Heart’. The poems are linked by their subject – the costs of retreat from vicissitude, now from the ‘heart’s’, now from the ‘mind’s’ (or ‘wisdom’s’) perspective – and by their dates of original composition. ‘Wisdom Unapplied’ was first published (untraced) in 1829; the former was almost certainly begun in the early 1830s or even late 1820s (Works, ii, 281), dating both poems close to Barrett Browning’s mother’s death in 1828. One legitimate supposition, therefore, is that Barrett Browning returned to poems composed in her first bereavement in the disabling aftermath of her second (see below, pp. 38–9). The evidence of the stanzas quoted below is that this version may well have begun as a fair copy which then turned into a working draft, a common practice for the poet. (This has been noted by Barrett Browning’s most recent editors, specifically and significantly in this context in relation to the composition ‘The Mask’ (Works, ii, 277) a poem which always precedes ‘Calls on the Heart’ in published form and the composition of which scholars (Hayter 1962, 120) have speculatively associated with the death of Bro.) What is striking is how pre-existing (and in one case ‘finished’) compositions – which were returned to, perhaps, for solace or in order to try to inhabit a prior creative self – now live again under Barrett Browning’s pen in fresh organic growth. For example, in the first half of ‘Calls on the Heart’ the speaking heart remains untempted and undisturbed by the lure of world and fame, residing securely (Stanza V first announces) in home love and ‘a fair still house well-kept’. The first two stanzas in manuscript correspond on the one hand to an earlier extant draft of the poem entitled ‘The Heart’ and (albeit inexactly due to intervening drafts) to stanzas I and IV of the published poem. They are copied without apparent revision, on right-hand (recto) leaf, thus verifying, it seems, the fair copy

The Poet at Work 27



theory. What became stanzas II and III of the final version are thus newly drafted here, on the left hand page, the preceding verso leaf. The newer drafts, that is, are germinated from in between the bounds of the original one, neither bounded by it, nor free of its order since they observe the refrain, ‘Heart will thou go?/ No, no’. This free, generous expansion outward of ‘live’ thinking from a tightly ordered space and pre-defining structure is a key feature of Barrett Browning’s composition. Here is the draft of the final two stanzas of the poem (following the central and sudden loss experienced by the speaking heart) with the chronological order of revisions indicated (revisions written above, rather than to the side, are indicated in italics). The published version of each stanza is appended at the end of the chapter.13 Stanza VIII Version 2 [written sideways at 45 degree angle] & yet all is not lost loss When the [?sense?] of grief is   most & the thorn pricks through to   my [2 further lines illegible]

Version 1

Yet all is not lost grief’s at the uttermost When the losing grief seems most When the thorn [?finds?] out the heart pricks thru When crouching on old, dear places Also the nightingales charted part While tears run down our faces & she comes alone to As a nightingale lone we sit With a flagged wing & By her nest, when a cuckoo hath rifled it Heart, wilt thou go?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

28

No! No! This heart, too fond to roam Mourneth at home. Stanza IX Version 2

The summer ends   in frost earth

And no more voices   murmur Ay ‘come out’    against the door

Version 1 And yet all is not lost, – No grave in the frost was This heart is made for serving Doglike–to perish starving The deathly angel’s call Shall end that funeral – And ‘come up hither’ shall win back all Heart, wilt thou ?say?+ go? [illeg] Even so Too sick, weak, sad to roam Take Heaven for home! Heaven taketh home.

Version 3 And yet all is not lost The summer ends in frost And the [illeg] tongues of promise Like sheep-bells die off from us Yet through that silence shall Sound the death angels call

The draft offers a brief ‘snapshot’ visual image of the poet at work at almost any stage of her oeuvre, from here, through the sonnets, to Aurora Leigh. The ‘live’ quality of her thinking is realized vividly on



The Poet at Work 29

the page, by the poet adding a new complete stanza (or, commonly in the sonnets, an entire sestet), often without deleting the latter. It is as though the poet needed herself to see her own thinking taking shape as a whole, and to keep the instincts of her first thoughts ‘safe’ at one level from the ‘harmful’ interference of her critical second ones. ‘After the first complacency of composition, without which no-one perhaps could write at all, I never thoroughly like anything of my own, & am ready to believe every kind of harm of it.’ (BC, iii, 186). At the same time this habit allows the poet to keep a succession of evolving thoughts in creative, as well as corrective, play, until such time as they find their own final and fitting ‘home’ in language. Perhaps the strongest evidence (discussed more fully in the next section) that grief is the medium as well as the subject of these stanzas lies in their efforts to locate compensation for loss amid the ‘thorn pricks’ of experienced grief itself: ‘Yet all is not lost/ When the losing grief seems most’ or ‘grief’s at the uttermost’ in Stanza VIII, and ‘Yet all is not lost/ No grave in the frost’ in Stanza IX. In the published version, all of these attempts are absorbed – or rather perhaps melded, ‘compressed’ – into a revised version of the final go at the opening of Stanza IX: ‘Howbeit all is not lost/ The summer ends in frost’. What Barrett Browning valued in others’ poetry (Browning’s especially, BC, vi, 325), and aimed for in her own, was ‘clearness & compression – concentration’ (BC, iii, 186). ‘The power of concentrating thought in poetry is a more essential one than as it is generally estimated … [May] the great distinction between poets and poetical writers be not referable to the presence of absence of such a power’ (BC, iii, 170). Of a tragedy by Horne, she wrote admiringly, ‘the Elizabethan fashion of malleting down your metaphors into the groundwork, produces a diction of extraordinary power – It is concentrated language’ (BC, iv, 275). Perhaps what Barrett Browning had in mind by this grounded-in quality was something like the Shakespearean image from Sonnet 12 which her own lines above recall – ‘And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves/ Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard’, 7–8 (against which the young Keats wrote, ‘Is this to be borne. Hark ye!’14). For held delicately yet burstingly suspended inside each metaphor is growth and waste, life and death at once, as paradoxically identical phenomena (a version of the Sonnets’ art

30

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

of ‘double exposure’: Vendler 1999, 53): ‘sweets and beauties do themselves forsake’, 11. That all is always lost or losing, is a thought which cannot be gainsaid (so the ‘Yet’ of protest in draft, becomes the ‘Howbeit’ of rueful acceptance at publication): nor, except thus in the concentrated power of its language, can the thought amend itself or console. The thought’s very power now requires the secondary formal resolution of the refrain, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet needs its concluding couplet. Yet as with the sonnet form, the fixity of structure half-produces, half-restrains the intensity of content – ‘burning through the metallic fissures of language’ (as the poet said of the condensed power of Browning’s poetry, BC, vi, 325) – that is cumulatively enriched and ‘malleted down’15 in successive shapings-out of the same idea. It is an early example of a quasi-Shakespearean thinking power, working with and against the constraints of form, that was to develop into a creative strategy in Aurora Leigh. For the evidence across the manuscripts under scrutiny here, as we shall see, is that Barrett Browning did not merely tinker in her revisions to poems. She re-rehearsed or re-performed them, while every new improvisation was both delimited and enabled by structural stays (often the restraining bridle of a refrain, Hayter 1962, 52) and by the strict guidance of a magisterial idea. This ‘headlong’ poet could never begin without a pre-ordained organizing principle or (as she often terms it) ‘ideal’. ‘I always struggle for a purpose’, she told Horne, ‘but not for a “plan” implying I suppose details.’ ‘[I] mold a beginning, middle & end part in my mind before writing a line! No – nothing can be done towards unity without wholeness – & the one purpose, is the soul of the composition, – the proof of life, the puto ergo sum.’ (BC, iv, 307) ‘Unity’ is a classically derived concept here – ‘A work which leaves no sovereign impression cannot have unity. The reader’s impression is the transcript … of the author’s conception … It appears to me that when the Greeks talked about unity they meant something of this sort’ (BC, v, 271). So ‘wholeness’ is the equivalent of what Philip Sidney called (neo-Platonically) a ‘foreconceit’ – ‘that the poet hath that idea is manifest by delivering them forth’ (Alexander 2004, 9). The early sonnets explicitly



The Poet at Work 31

recount how headlong evolving process, even in its very heart throbs, was always for Barrett Browning, also a recovery of prior forms. Here is the draft version of ‘Insufficiency’. When I attain to utter forth in verse Some inner thought, my soul throbs audibly To have [illegible] [illegible], to follow along the pulse And new found passage outwards, & rehearse Openly of the universe! right? In consummation of thy harmony – 16

The draft attests almost equally to Barrett Browning’s Platonic grounding (BC, ii, 226; vi, 157; viii, 264) and to her Romantic expressive tendencies. She wrote forward not just at the prompting of the pulse, but in pursuit of the original rhythm and order which produced and kept it going. The spontaneous utterance is at once highly subjective and individualist, yet also finds both its conceiving origins and its ideal completion beyond itself (‘Beauty is the visible form of Good … [yet] earth is not a place for full realization even of the Arts’, BC, vi, 143). It is part of the rich hybridity and openness (and indeed ‘concentration’) of Barrett Browning’s work that she should honour multiple metaphysical and philosophical allegiances as a ‘natural’ part of her exuberant fluency. Her creative disposition invites comparison with Shakespeare for this reason alone. More, what was true of the ‘idea’ was also true of the shape it took. For even new-created form rested at some level on pre-conceived notions of it. Barrett Browning’s learning in poetic formalism was as extensive and studious as her knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and came from the self-same appetite for first things. The twentieth-century poet Alice Meynell, in her Introduction to Barrett Browning’s ‘The Art of Scansion’ (originally a letter to the poet’s first scholar-mentor Uvedale Price, BC, ii, 47–54) wonders at how the girl so enamoured of formalism should have produced such metrically unconventional poems (Meynell 1916, 9). But the mere formal knowledge

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

became as irrelevant to her as language learning had done (‘drudgery … past bearing once we have learned to think, BC, iv, 144; v, 225) and could afford all the more to be despised and explicitly disregarded for being already an implicit part of her. I shall argue in detail in Chapters 2 and especially Chapter 3 that the poet’s departures from metrical norms were, like Shakespeare’s own, indicative of and entirely dependent on her knowledge, not her ignorance, of them. But the knowledge was so naturalized as hardly to appear to be knowledge even to the poet herself. It is as though Barrett Browning always knew where she was going before she started, but only how she would get there when she started, even as the ‘how’ rested upon implicit technical know-how, and faith in the power of the (neo-Platonic) ideal to realize its own shape and form. The certainty at one level always made for creatively unpredictable excitement at the other. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the manuscripts, especially given the sense of loss under which she apparently suffered at the time of this one, is that, while she is working, nothing is ever finished or final. She can return to a poem again and again and each time it is not so much revised as re-sprung. I give below the climactic stanza VII from the published version of the poem preceded in parallel by the working draft which lies behind it. (c.1840) [illeg] the door and the   casement close Lest thy dwelling its quiet lose. Too late! For the cloud hath   broken, Or ere the ‘Take heed’ was   spoken –. Too late! for the lightenings’   birth Is death – and he sits by the   hearth

VII (1850) Heart, O Love, beware! – Look up, and boast not there. For who has twirled at the pin? ‘Tis the World, between death and sin, – The World, and the world’s Despair! And Death has quickened his pace

The Poet at Work 33



Familiar as love, though cold   as dearth. Heart, wilt thou go? No! No! This heart too sad to roam Fainteth* (written above)

To the hearth with a mocking face, Familiar as Love, in Love’s own place – Heart, wilt thou go? ‘Still, no! High hearts must grieve even so.’

[illeg] at home. These stanzas recognisably belong to the same poem formally and materially, even as each is its own drama of composition. It is as though the very fixity of form which is established in the course of composition helps make the conception upon which it rests endlessly playable. The draft has all the qualities of an instinctive first effort, lines ‘rush[ing] on with a bold rapidity, striking fire from each other in their progress … & vehemence’ (BC, ii, 187). It follows the momentum of dazed (even humiliatingly slow) human catch-up relative to death’s quick, sly entry in lines 1–2: ‘Too late!’ (line 3) is belatedly after the door has closed in death in exchange for peace, as ‘Take Heed’ (line 4) is spoken ineffectually behind ‘Too late’. But the stanza’s rapid onward force also registers the shock of the missed event itself at lines 5–6 (temporally equivalent to 1–2) where, in the sudden surprise turn (the lightenings’ birth/ Is death), it is not life alone that is exchanged for death: rather ‘birth’ itself seems gone with the line-ending and at the same lightning quick speed. As in the minutely swift, mobile, shifting energies of a Shakespeare sonnet ‘it is the experience not of recognizing the mutable nature of the human condition but of participating in an actual experience of mutability’ (Booth 1969, 59). The revision from Death’s being ‘Familiar as Love, though cold as dearth’ to ‘Familiar as Love, in Love’s own place’ produces something of that same quiet shock we receive when looking from the Quarto to the Folio text of the last act of King Lear. When the dead Cordelia suddenly lives again in Lear’s loving, dying sight (‘Do you see? Look on her. Look, her lips./ Look there, look there’ V, iii, 286–7),17 Death is made as unutterably misplaced as it is undeniably and embodiedly present.

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Since the evidence of the manuscripts, as of the dramatic experiments, is that Barrett Browning was already particularly adroit at making a great deal happen in a very small space, it is not so astonishing that some of her greatest achievements would be the outcome of her subjecting her thinking to the tight discipline of the sonnet from.

The Sonnet The occasion of Barrett Browning’s first extended and concentrated endeavour in the sonnet form – the death of her brother Edward in 1840 – was also the event which almost killed her and left her for a long time without the power of words at all. ‘I fall into silences now, both of voice & writing’, she wrote late in 1840, ‘& lie in them too – when unawakened’ (BC, iv, 299), and in the Spring of the following year, ‘the Divine Hand … struck me terribly in the very life of my heart. But I cannot write of this even now. I have written very little poetry – but I love it as I always did – and shall write on if I live on’ (BC, iv, 43). Later, her own response to bereavement made her distrust the publication of an elegy by Horne as disauthenticatingly premature: ‘It appears to me early for anyone struck by such a blow, to be able to throw the pang of it into verse. After a time that power comes – but a great grief is incapacitating, during the period of its operation’ (BC, viii, 255). To the poet who was to write in her Preface to the 1844 volume (in which the grief sonnets were first collectively published) ‘My poems … have my heart and life in them – they are not empty shells … Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself’ (Works, v, 70), the period of her own loss of powers must have felt like a double bereavement and a personal death of its kind. Barrett Browning’s ‘natural’ life (without which a writer ‘cease[s] to be poetical’, BC, i, 159) had cracked, fallen from the bias of itself. ‘I scarcely recognise myself sometimes. One stroke ended my youth’ (BC, v, 281); ‘Grief had … changed me from myself and warped me from my old instincts’ (BC, iv, 303). How was the poetry that dried up with the life to start again when that



The Poet at Work 35

life hardly existed or knew what it was anymore? More, what shape could such poetry take in the absence of a content to determine it – when there was no ‘spirit’ left to ‘make the form’ (AL, v, 224–5)? Barrett Browning could no longer trust to ‘old instincts’ (only thus later renewed). For the grief which had destroyed all prior form (it ‘gave a nightmare to my life forever & robbed it of more than I can speak of here’ she wrote in her biographical sketch to Horne, BC, vii, 353) could not itself produce form, even secondarily. Recent criticism has regarded the grief sonnets as symptomatic of this trauma of silence and baulked relation of life and art. ‘The few poems she wrote about the death of Bro seem to be inspired, not by the effort of expressing grief, but by the effort of being “dumb”, somehow, against the power of her pen’. The poet is ‘bleakly unmoved by the [merely rhetorical] consolation she works out’ while each poem is ‘an exercise in consolation, which shuts out, beyond the margins of its verbal comforts, a grief which cannot be caught up into poetry’ (Leighton 1986, 83, 85). Barrett Browning is ‘retreating further and further inward to the core of her own speechlessness … produc[ing] inscriptions for a language that will never overcome its own intrinsic death’ (Billone 2007, 59). But the evidence of the manuscripts, I wish to demonstrate, is that Barrett Browning’s austerely deliberate turn to the ‘empty shell’ of the sonnet was not an evasion or retreat from grief, but, on the contrary, a means to galvanize, dare and challenge back to life a content which her suffering life itself could barely support. The ‘grief’ sonnets in manuscript appear to show Barrett Browning recovering, in practice, informally and experientially, the therapeutic and transformative uses of the sonnet as they had been employed and theorized by Renaissance writers. The letters and notebooks confirm that there was nothing merely casually experimental about Barrett Browning’s efforts in the form. ‘I have been exercising myself in [the sonnet structure] not infrequently of late’, she wrote in 1842 (BC, vi, 111), in a letter principally concerned with her sonnet dedicated to Wordsworth. While Wordsworth’s revitalization of the sonnet form18 unquestionably influenced Barrett Browning’s efforts, it did not prevent her characteristic habit of returning to basics. In her notebooks,

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original draft compositions of sonnets and longer poems jostle informally with translations from Petrarch’s Rimes.19 Barrett Browning had ‘never had an enthusiasm for Petrarch’, finding his poetry ‘deficient in earnestness and intensity’ though ‘beautiful’ in execution’ (BC, vi, 246). Thus these efforts show the poet putting herself very deliberately and extensively through her ‘paces’ in relation, specifically, to the sonnet form. More, in her 1842 letter on the sonnet, it is the sonnet’s formal discipline to which she draws admiring attention: ‘The sonnet structure is a very fine one, however imperious, and I never would believe that our language is unqualified for the very strictest Italian form’ (BC, vi, 111). This letter also clearly indicates that Barrett Browning had in mind a further implicit model, in addition to the acknowledged ones of Wordsworth and Petrarch. Following several hundred references to Shakespeare’s plays in the published correspondence, it is in this letter for the first time (in the immediately succeeding paragraph, which turns – with formidably suggestive retrospective power in this context – to praise of Browning’s ‘Pippa Passes’) that she quotes from Shakespeare’s Sonnets.20 The influence of the Sonnets, as we shall see, is stitched into Barrett Browning’s apprenticeship in the new form from the outset. In what follows, I shall be concentrating in the main on the sonnets contained, in numbered sequence, in Berg Notebook I (received by Barrett Browning in 1840 and thus in the early aftermath of her grief). These sonnets re-appear, numbered and re-arranged in some degree, in the newly recovered ABL notebook, entitled ‘Sonnets in the Night’.21 I consider the implication of this early sonnet ‘sequence’ at the close of the chapter. The bold opening of the first grief sonnet (later titled ‘Past and Future’) as it appears in original manuscript shows a language neither in retreat nor speechless: 1 2

My future will not copy fair my past Be fully On any leaf but Heaven’s – get on be done, wd not fain be

The Poet at Work 37

3 4 5 6

Indeed

7 8

Supernal Will! I am not one Who having joy and broken fast Upon the sweetings of the heart, at last Says no grace after meat. My wine hath run Out of along the there is Out of my cup indeed; but, and, none Can gather up the bread of my repast. (Berg I, Collections, D708)

The vigour of the opening lines, especially their bold metrical improvisation, is in inverse proportion to the death wish which produces them. As the predictable iambic rhythm of line 1, deftly supercharges (in Shakespearean manner) a functional word at line 2 – ‘any’ takes as much stress as (the monosyllabic) ‘Heaven’s’ and internally rhymes with it – the mid-line break (and swallowed syllable) is a premature dead stop. It is retrospectively emphasized by the thumping urgent rhythm of the monosyllables which follow, setting life and metre going again, albeit unevenly and recalcitrantly in the unmarked, but grammatically registered further break between ‘on’ and ‘be’. The revision to ‘Be fully done’ barely amends the rhythm as, by contrast, the adjustment at the opening of line 7 carefully attempts to do – replacing a trochee (‘Out of’) with an iamb (‘Indeed’) – which metrical ‘correction’ seems to correspond to the diminution of energy consequent upon the growing sense of loss. These liberties are not those of a ‘defective ear’ but rather (I shall argue more fully in Chapters 2 and 3) of an informally trained one.22 More, contextually, they are a sign of life itself in energetic resurgence and re-assertion. What we see here at the outset of this sequence, at the very end of life and hope, is Barrett Browning not only making her first Shakespearean experiments with metre, but recovering in this new form some of her old instinctive habit – neither disregarding nor merely resisting formal pattern, but syncopating with and improvising from within it. The result is closer to the witty impatience of Donne than the accepting calm of Wordsworth, more Paulina than Ophelia.23 At the same time, there is no doubting the sonnet’s conviction. Sonnet XLII (line 1) of Sonnets from the Portuguese, in the achieved

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rapture of a certain future, explicitly contrasts itself with this sonnet which can see none. More, these opening lines of ‘Past and Future’ correspond, in language and thought, to letters Barrett Browning wrote in the midst of her grief. ‘For my best beloved I look up to that Heaven whence only comes any measure of true comfort & adequate endurance. The crown fallen from our heads as a family, can be restored only there’ (BC, v, 166). In the same letter, she says, ‘The scars of that anguish I shall take down with me to the grave. Things past remain present – some things.’ But withal the Hardyesque guilt in bereavement expressed in the life,24 there is, in the poetry, no equivalent interest in, or time for, ‘expiation’ (Hardy’s description of the 1912–13 poems written following the death of his wife25). Rather, the sonnet which initiated Barrett Browning’s own grief sequence is so impatiently in pursuit of future restoration in Heaven that its dramatic turn – loyal to the life-energy’s own will to get ahead of itself – happens prematurely at lines 1–2 in that sudden movement from past to future, life to death. The life charge of this opening is the more remarkable and demonstrable by comparison with the ending of the nearcontemporaneous draft of ‘Calls on the Heart’ which expresses the same thought, yet does so (very clearly in the ABL notebook) in a minutely tiny and visibly ‘sick, weak, sad’ hand. Heart, wilt thou ?say?+ go? [illeg] Even so Too sick, weak, sad to roam Take Heaven for home! Heaven taketh home. The ending of this stanza is coterminous with a wished-for end of life itself, tired not triumphant, and ends on a ‘home’ which is a continuation of a domestic one, and not a redemptive alternative as in the published version (‘Broken hearts triumph so’). The danger of improvised thinking, even within a settled stanzaic structure, was that it could write itself (shakily) back into grief. The resemblance between the close of ‘Calls on the Heart’ in the ABL notebook and the opening of ‘Past and Future’ are close enough to suggest



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that one may even have led directly to the other.26 It is possible she re-wrote, that is to say, the end as a new beginning and re-embodied her sorrow within a structure which would, even regeneratively, force a conclusion and do so according to its own formal imperatives. This is a life rediscovering a content in the primary act of writing through the energizing pressure of restricted form. The ‘certain limit observed in sonnets’, said Samuel Daniel, is not ‘tyrannical bounding’ but ‘a just form, neither too long for the shortest project, nor too short for the longest’ (‘The Defence of Poesy’ (1603); Alexander 2004, 216). Even the advance notice of certainty the sonnet gives is an aspect of the sonnet frame’s robust power. ‘Because it is, however written, always short enough to be seen at once by the eye, [one] registers a sense of completeness before tackling the complications inside it’ (Spiller, 51).27 The sonnet’s prior completeness, while offering the safety of a certain conclusion, must also have seemed to Barrett Browning like her newly foreshortened sense of her own life. That life now knew its own shape already, yet it had still to see through that finitude even so. The sonnet at once enjoined a stop and sure closure, while at the same time it posited and exacted a future ahead. The sorrowing life might know its own resolution by line 2, but the sonnet frame beckoned as a ‘blank’ to fill. More, in its internal structure, it offered firm, pre-ordained ‘stepping-stones’, as Tennyson expressed it in the first section of In Memoriam, on which to rise from a ‘dead’ self to ‘higher things’.28 All verse is but a frame of wordes confined within certain measure … and Ryme, whose knowne frame hath those due stays for the mind, those encounters of touch, as make the motion certain though the variety be infinite, being far more laborious than loose measures … must needs meeting, with wit and industry, breed greater and worthier effects in our language. (‘The Defence of Poesy’, Alexander 2004, 210, 217) There is abundant evidence in Barrett Browning’s sonnets, particularly in the sestets, of a creative struggle for fulfilment of the tight requirements of rhyme and the certain measure of rhythm,

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40

on the one hand, and the inwardly urgent demands of thought, on the other. ‘And yet I find some good,’ the sestet of ‘Past and Future’ begins, ‘In earth’s green herbs and streams that bubble/Clear from the darkling ground’ 11 12

13

14

waiting until with angels before better food I sit down with the angels to their food and Christ’s new vintage brims my cup when thy new vintage brims When better food will his new wine shall fill my cup no more This hand shall never shake – nor that wine spill This hand shall shake not, nor that wine shall spill! (Berg I, Collections, D400)

The sequence of small adjustments to the final line runs thus: 1 2 3

This hand shall shake not, nor that wine shall spill. This hand shall never shake nor that wine spill. This hand shall shake no more – nor that wine spill.

‘No more’ (3) replaces ‘never’ (2) replaces ‘not’ (1). The initial adjustment (1 to 2) owes itself in part to metrical considerations (‘never shake’ restores iambic pentameter) and in part to a more absolute emphasis upon future recovery. The adjustment to ‘no more’ catches the past and present into that future. Suddenly, the writing hand becomes as primary and present as the very physical pressure which keeps the pen moving in willed despite of its ‘shake’ (the effort is especially apparent in (1) where the word takes exactly the pressure of the particle which negates it – This hand shall shake not). ‘Shake’ is as much its physical self here as is (at one level) the ‘leaf’ which it recalls (line 2), and as invisibly tangible as the hand which demonstrably faltered at the close of ‘Calls on the Heart’. Here, however, the ‘stay’ of rhyme not only ensures completion – ‘the certain close of delight with the full bodie of a just period well carried’ (‘The Defence of

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Poesy’, Alexander 2004, 216): the very discipline allows variation and expansion within it – the internal rhyme of ‘no more, nor’ – which rhyming surplus, like ‘no more’ itself, then resonates beyond the sonnet’s own completion. ‘If our labours have wrought out a manumission from bondage, and we go at liberty, notwithstanding these ties, we are no longer the slaves of rhyme, but we make it a most excellent instrument to serve us.’ (‘The Defence of Poesy’, Alexander 2004, 216). Here, it is as though we see Barrett Browning recovering, in small, that transition point connecting finite and infinite which she had sought in the larger dramatic movements of The Seraphim. It is no accident that the infinite extension of ‘no more’, still held nonetheless inside the strict limits of the sonnet’s present, renders ‘shake’, ‘leaf’ and in this context ‘copy’ also (line 1) (‘Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die’, Sonnet 11) deeply Shakespearean. ‘Shakespeare’s “hand” – “Remember not/ The hand that writ it” (Sonnet 71) – is inseparable from the writing which it was’ (Kerrigan 1999, 44). In Barrett Browning’s first sonnet – as in ‘You live in this’ (Sonnet 55), ‘His beauty shall in these black lines be seen’ (Sonnet 63), ‘So is my love still telling what is told’ (Sonnet 76) – the instant of writing and the ‘instant’ of eternity (Oliver 1989, 104) are almost unfathomably co-present. In the revisions to the sonnet which, in manuscript and published versions, follows ‘Past and Future’, we see Barrett Browning once again using the very narrowing of the sestet to extend the latter’s dimensions just where the sonnet space wants to close itself up. Entitled at publication ‘Irreparableness’, and beginning in draft, ‘I have run in the meadows all the day/ And gathered there the nosegay which you see’, the opening of the sestet asks ‘[should I] go/ Back to these pleasant fields and gather more?’ and continues:

11 12 13

they are still in sight Ah you may do it – all the fields are full In me it is too late – my strength is low My hands are full of flowers pulled beforehand I am very tired – the flowers pulled before & now hold dead until myself shall die

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

42 14

I hold them in my hands though dead till night. Held dead within them till myself shall die.

Again, the revisions are triple: 1 2 3

I hold them in my hands though dead till night & now hold dead until myself shall die Held dead within them till myself shall die.

These adjustments show the kind of evolving concentration of energy and thought in the making of the sonnet which are visible in the finished product in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5 (of which there are strong echoes – or counter-tones – in ‘Irreparableness’): ‘For never-resting time leads summer on/ To hideous winter and confounds him there’: Then, were not summer’s distillation left A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass, Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft, Nor it nor no remembrance what it was. But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet, Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet. Barrett Browning’s achieved final line is almost a precise reversal of Shakespeare’s conceit – that ‘summer’s distillation’ is ‘a liquid prisoner pent’ within the (apparently) deadest flower. For self and hands are first disturbers of never-resting time’s leading-on and premature agents of death (to the ‘flowers pulled beforehand’); and then, with the flowers too, are distilleries of death. ‘Till’ does not invoke the future renaissance of the flowers’ ‘sweet’ life but their annihilation. More, by a further feat of syntactic compression and semantic distillation, ‘myself’ becomes retrospectively a second subject of ‘held dead’: the flowers are in her hands and her dead life is inside the flowers, even while they are both ‘leesed’ (via ‘till’, in place of Shakespeare’s triumphantly time-conquering ‘still’) beyond their natural life. Paradoxically, the sonnet revitalizes a familiar trope from deep inside the death-in-life state it expresses.



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More, in later drafts, the requirements of rhyme produce the retrospective reinstatement of the cancellation at line 11, which becomes, in the ABL notebook,29 ‘Ah, you, may do it and rejoice thereby’, and at publication, ‘Another, sooth, may do it, – but not I!’ The emphatic first-person subject at rhyming line-end is thereby gifted an affirming power, energy and (literally) a point, in spite of its negation, its ‘low strength’ and its sense of having outlived all point and purpose. ‘Rhyme is no impediment to [the poet’s] conceit, but rather gives him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course but as it were beyond his power to a far happier flight’ (‘The Defence of Poesy’, Alexander 2004, 216). These first sonnets seem more a tiny miracle than a ‘sad mechanic exercise’ (In Memoriam, v, 7) or a poet evasively in retreat. Moreover, the evidence across the manuscripts and letters is that Barrett Browning could not, if she had wanted to, have used poetry against itself, not least because the chief symptom of ‘dumb’ inarticulacy in the composition of the sonnets is simply to stop writing. The original manuscript version of ‘Insufficiency’ ends, abandonedly, thus: but I cannot speak – my ways are weak The ?things? I wd – my withering words do fall And as ever at my lips do tremble & fall Like ripe fruit from my lips or ere they seek (Berg IV) The ‘narrow room’ of the sonnet space could apparently seem very roomy indeed, perhaps because its blankness was all Barrett Browning had as an instrument of recovery. ‘Think of living for two years in a place & of gathering nothing from it but grief – and speaking advisedly I say nothing’ (BC, vi, 147). Yet even here, the poet arduously seeks words successfully to denote the impoverished failure of words themselves – outward, finished forms incommensurate with the emergent, unshaped content (‘?things?’) within. Barrett Browning’s finally achieved grief sonnets are testimony to her battling determination that something would come of nothing. ‘The least use of the active occupation is its immediate end – & its

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greatest, perhaps, the bracing of the energies of the mind in the shock of Life’ (BC, viii, 13); ‘the great privilege of throwing WORK between Life and its shadow: & between yourself & all natural trouble & sense of frailty, Art & its ideal! Who could forgo such a grace, having once received and exulted in it?’ (BC, vii, 223) ‘Grief’ (which in composition and arrangement always succeeds ‘Past and Future’ and ‘Irreparableness’) is the poem which has received most attention as exemplifying Barrett Browning’s settling for merely rhetorical consolation. Yet in manuscript it looks not at all like an exercise in dumbness, but a concentratedly fluent effort at complete expression of it as a piece of sacred ‘WORK’. Like Tennyson, she makes the inexpressibility of her grief paradoxically expressible, but without, crucially, holding the very effort at expression ‘half a sin’ (In Memoriam, v, 1). Rather it was a matter of duty and of faith to use the poetry as an instrument against the inertia of the life.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13.

hopeless I tell you that deep grief is passionless – That [illegible] men Hope only ?souls? hearts incredulous of despair Half-taught in anguish thro the midnight air Half-taught in woe – beat upward Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness In hearts as countries, lyeth silent In hearts as countries, lyeth [illegible] bare? [illegible] before And still and silent to the blanching glare Under the blanching vertical eye-glare Of the ?full? chastened heavens. though Of the ?full? chastened heavens. But I express Grief for the dead in silence like to death Most like a monumental statue set sign of & moveless woe In everlasting watch on dust below Till crumble to the dust beneath Until itself be dust. Are its cheeks wet? Reach out and touch the stoney

The Poet at Work 45

14.

If it cd weep, it cd arise and go. (Berg I, Collections, D318)

I quote in full here to register the force of the paradoxical relationship between the fluidity of the writing and the central conceit which part-represents it – ‘a monumental statue’ – and also between the latter’s stillness and its multiple, mobile significance. The image holds together the inward private feeling from which the writing emerges and the outward public form which that writing achieves (a ‘moment’s monument’ as Daniel Gabriel Rossetti famously called the sonnet).30 This two-way movement pivots on the sonnet turn at line 8, where, in a super-added tension between the completion of the line and the syntactic unit, ‘But I express’ (at line-end) boldly occupies the very centre of the poem in emphatic paradoxical relation to the ‘silence’ which is its grammatical object. This silence is intrinsically Shakespearean, I suggest.31 For in between those reciprocally dependent oppositions (expression and silence) there exists, in the tiny gap at the line-ending (Shakespeare’s ‘implicit syntactic tool … a minutely pausing place within the rhythm of the world’ Davis 2007, 43), the very silence – more, the passing into silence – which is the poem’s true centre and subject. It is one of those ‘transitions which catch the feelings of a thought even in the midst of its own grammatical formulation’ (Davis 2007, 43). More, the volta creates a version of the ‘spoken’ silence which is powerfully registered in the Shakespeare scene most often alluded to in Barrett Browning’s letters and of special significance in relation to her brother.32 Viola:

Orsino: Viola:

My father had a daughter loved a man As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman I should your lordship. And what’s her history? A blank, my lord: She never told her love, But let concealment, like a worm i’th’ bud, Feed on her damask cheek: She pin’d in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy Sat like patience on a monument, Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? (II, iv, 107–15)

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Grief’s ‘monumental statue’ is no more a dead silent thing than Viola’s animated ‘blank’ or her embodied ‘patience’. On the contrary, these silences of unrealized emotion are not only inner to language and life, rather than alienated from it:33 they are the indices, and here the very instantiates, dramatically, of life’s subtlest and richest reality. In the shadow-life by which Viola is suddenly extended and new-created, she is most herself and most vitally alive (as the vitality of Barrett Browning’s own personal grief was to prove stubborn indeed in Sonnets from the Portuguese).34 More, in addition to its Shakespearean cadence (‘Most like’, see pp. 69–73 below), the central idea of ‘Grief’ holds within it, in saturated solution, not only Viola’s loving grief, but also (almost admonishingly to its presenting sentiment) the implicit promise both of Hermione’s living statue (‘It is required/ You do awake your faith’, The Winter’s Tale, V, iii, 94–5) and of Lear and Cordelia’s reconciliation (‘Be your tears wet?’ King Lear, V, I, 64). (Both these scenes are explicitly and powerfully invoked in Aurora Leigh, ii, 209–210; vi, 795–7.) The sonnet’s achievement, I am suggesting, is neither to evade nor simply to assuage grief, but rather to new-formulate and re-configure it, through the poet’s trusting reliance on an inner reservoir of Shakespearean discourse when she felt she had no commensurate language of her own. So, too, in ‘Pain in Pleasure’, for example (also inflected with Shakespearean borrowings – ‘The thought that seemed a flower grew rank & dull’; compare Hamlet, I, ii, 136). For here, a poem about good thoughts turning bad, accomplishes its reverse, pleasure in pain, by producing a thought in better shape. O entertain (my Heart cried as she woke) Your best and gladdest thoughts but long enough [illegible] [illegible] & they [illegible] prove sad enough to change & sting. (Berg IV, D700) These sonnets conscientiously do what ‘every work of art from Shakespeare must do’ Barrett Browning believed – ‘evolve a thought’ (BC, v, 271). For poetry’s very ‘power over the pulses’ (BC, v, 169–170) was always, for this poet, a matter of the mind and heart



The Poet at Work 47

together35 (and, as Chapter 3 will show, the poet’s model for the vital connectedness of ‘emotion’ and ‘thought’ was explicitly Shakespeare p. 117 below). Poetry did not deserve the name which lacked ‘that music which is the Chief Intellect’. ‘The striking of one note does not make a melody. And besides, is it not true that the strength of our feelings, often rises up out of our thoughts – out of our bare intellectuality, – hard & cold thing as it is, of itself?’ (BC, iii, 194); ‘The more thought … the better for Truth’ (BC, v, 236). As we began to see in the previous section (p. 31), the business of the poet was to ‘evolve’ the ‘thought’, the ‘ideal’, the ‘whole’, the ‘truth’, the ‘idea’ implicit inside creatively inspirational feeling. What critics have regarded as an absence of feeling in these early sonnets is really an austere consciousness of the duty to think feeling as a religious endeavour as much as an artistic one. ‘Adequacy’, written some while after the very first grief sonnets,36 is a good example of the terms of the sonnet project and its accomplishment. It begins, Now … doth the earth appear – Quite good enough for men to overbear The will of God in, with rebellious wills! and concludes, ‘We … our ills/ Heap up against this good’ As if ourselves were better certainly Than what we come to. Maker and High Priest, I ask thee not my joys to multiply, – Only to make me worthier of the least. (Berg II, Collections, D14) The manuscript shows the concerted threefold effort which went into putting much into little in those final lines, and their achieved density of thought is clearer when compared with one rejected version – ‘A glory round up equal to our worth/ O give us grace less to enjoy than be’. The published text (as above) converts the generalized religious concepts (glory, grace) into particularized, personal virtue: the emphasis is not on substraction (‘less’ joy) but on addition (more worth) so that ‘least’ is affirmed in the completion of the line and rhyme not as deficiency but as a human

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good. It is perhaps no accident that the sonnet, in both its language and its operation, echoes Sydney’s ‘noble “Discourse on Poetry” ’37 and his famous distinction between ‘our erected wit’ which ‘maketh us know what perfection is’ and ‘our infected will’ which ‘keepeth us from reaching unto it’ (Alexander 2004, 10). For it is as though in fitting her feeling thought to a Renaissance form, Barrett Browning thereby informally recovered a Renaissance cosmology, in which despite the ‘rebellious wills’ of the Fall, an amending perfection can be realized. As the first creation replaced Chaos, said Daniel, so the sonnet is a second creation which also includes that second version of chaos, the Fall, now within the world rather than prior to it: The body of our imagination being as an unformed chaos without fashion, without day, if by the divine power of the spirit it be wrought into an orb of order and form, is it not more pleasing to nature, that desires a certainty and comports not with that which is infinite, to have these closes, rather than not to know where to end, or how far to go, especially seeing our passions are often without measure? (‘The Defence of Poesy’, Alexander 2004, 216) In ‘Comfort’, which appears as Sonnet 6 in Berg I and ‘Sonnets in the Night’, we can see, in miniature, the sonnet shaping, at the volta, into ‘an orb of order and form’ inside night’s chaos: Let me go In reach of thy divinest voice complete In humanest affection. There in sooth have lost shall lose the sense of losing 10 I shall repose contented – like a child (Berg I, Collections, D417) The revision at line 10 – preserved at publication (‘To lose the sense of losing./ As a child’) finds a Shakespearean music of internal ‘ties’ (‘Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,/ And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er/ The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan’ Sonnet 30) which revises loss itself into gain. The infinity of ‘losing’



The Poet at Work 49

(less a noun, like ‘loss’, than a non-finite continuous present verb) is wrought into ‘just’ measure and a (mid-line) close. The poem achieves in a single line, in the very instant of new creation, the atonement for loss and the Fall to which the entire project of Eve’s spiritual journey in A Drama of Exile is dedicated. This sonnet seems to have been pivotal, moreover, in Barrett Browning’s own journey in grief. ‘Comfort’ is the penultimate sonnet of the initial grief sequence in Berg 1, followed, significantly, by ‘Futurity’. The sonnets which fill Berg Notebooks 2, 3 and 4 are generally, like ‘Adequacy’, more meditative, reflective and Psalm-like in quality, as though written as much for repeated personal rehearsal as for publication. The poet who had considered ‘attempting a poetical version of the Psalms’ (always a strong source of consolation38) in the period following her mother’s death (BC, iii, 62) had now found in the sonnet a way to produce her own (and others’) formal ‘comfort’.39 The fair copy and titled version in the ABL notebook (‘Sonnets in the Night’), I suggest, is not so much a sign that Barrett Browning ‘might have been planning a sonnet sequence with autobiographical resonance even before meeting Robert Browning’ (Works, ii, 79), but evidence that she knew that the grief sequence per se, which had begun in Berg I, was already completed, emotionally. ‘Part of me is worn out’, she wrote late in 1841, ‘but the poetical part, that is, the love of poetry – is growing in me as freshly & strongly as if it were watered every day’ (BC, v, 139). ‘What pleasure is like pen and ink work when you are in the heat of it? Is it not the intense consciousness of Being – twenty senses instead of the natural complement – a doubling & tripling of the powers of life?’ (BC, vii, 223). It is because the sonnet proved to be its own form of cure that Tennyson, and not Barrett Browning, became the first poet of grief in the Victorian period.40 For grief, for Barrett Browning, was poetry’s object and project, not its subject. ‘Poetry resembles grief in rending asunder our conventionalities … but does so singing instead of sighing. It transfigures the great humanity into the sense of its To-come’ (BC, vi, 219). It would take love’s alchemy to convert the ‘vertical’ reach41 of her first sonnets to the horizontal sequential momentum of a future on earth and in time which is the achievement of Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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Notes  1. For the correspondence relating to this collaboration see BC, v, 6–7, 12–15, 16–18, 23–5, 29–30,  2. I use square brackets throughout the book to mark Barrett Browning’s frequent (and sometimes idiosyncratic) use of ellipses.  3. For Milton’s influence on A Drama of Exile see BC, viii, 84, 117. Othello (with Hamlet, see below, pp. 105–6), is one of the most frequently quoted of Shakespeare’s plays in Barrett Browning’s correspondence).  4. See for example, Mermin (1989), 63; Avery and Stott (2003), 72–3. See also for related emphases David G. Reide (1994), who argues that ‘angel imagery in Barrett’s work … is crucial to her construction of poetic character at the nexus of female and male traditions, and (not quite the same pairing) of Romantic and Christian traditions’, 121.  5. See below, p. 76 and note 20, p. 83.  6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (chapter xiii) in H. J. Jackson (ed.) (2000), 313.  7. See Alan G. Hill (ed.) (1984), Letters of William Wordsworth: A New Selection, Oxford; Oxford University Press, 59–60.  8. Missing since 1915 (D110 in Collections), the notebook was acquired by the Amstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University, Waco, Texas in 2008.  9. See The Examiner (1838) 24 June, 387–8; The Monthly Review (1838) September, 125–30; The Athenaeum (1838) 7 July, 466–8; The Literary Gazette (1838) 1 December, 759–60; The Quarterly Review (1840) September, 382–9. See also BC, 375, 385, 409, 413. 10. See Blair (2006), 130–33; Stone (1987), 64–7; Leighton (1996), 53–74. 11. See Blair (2006), 119–28; Campbell (1999), 42–5. 12. See above p. 19. 13. VIII The house is waste to-day,– The leaf has dropt from the spray, The thorn, prickt through to the song. If summer doeth no wrong



The Poet at Work 51

  The winter will, they say. Sing, Heart! what heart replies? In vain we were calm and wise, If the tears unkissed stand on in our eyes.   Heart, wilt thou go?     – Ah, no! Grieved hearts must break even so.’     IX Howbeit all is not lost. The warm noon ends in frost, And worldly tongues of promise, Like sheep-bells, die off from us     On the desert hills cloud-crossed! Yet, through the silence, shall Pierce the death-angel’s call,   And ‘Come up hither’, recover all.     Heart wilt thou go?      –‘I go!     Broken hearts triumph so.’ 14. See Vendler (1999), 100. 15. See ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning’ (1890) Révue chretiénne (Paris) new series 9, 783–807, for remarks on Barrett Browning’s Shakespearean tendency to condense thought. 16. Berg IV, see below, note 18. 17. Compare The History of King Lear, V, iii, 303–4. 18. See Phelan (2005), 9–33. Phelan also comments on Barrett Browning’s indebtedness to the models of Charlotte Smith and Felicia Hemans, while acknowledging Barrett Browning’s distinct ambivalence towards female precursors in the sonnet form (in particular, the poet’s dislike of Hemans’s’ ‘ladylike’ refinement). Interestingly, Phelan finds the most striking similarities between Hemans’s autobiographical sonnets and Barrett Browning’s grief sonnets exist in the poems’ titles (Phelan, 2005, 48–9). At composition and re-drafting stages Barrett Browning’s grief sonnets in the poems’ titles (Phelan, 2005, 48–9). My own reading of the grief sonnets traces an intrinsic trajectory which

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is distinct from both male and female Romantic-elegiac traditions (see especially below, p. 49). 19. Berg Notebooks I and IV (Collections, D1397, D1400), New York Public Library and Sonnet Notebook (Collections, D1422), Armstrong Browning Library. 20. Sonnet 65. See below, p. 56. 21. In Berg Notebook I, Sonnets are numbered and ordered (untitled) ‘Past and Future’, ‘Irreparableness’, ‘Grief’, ‘Tears’, ‘Substitution’, ‘Comfort’, ‘Futurity’: there is no Sonnet 8, but there is a Sonnet 9, ‘Work and Contemplation’. In the ABL Notebook the sonnets are numbered 1–IX thus: ‘Past and Future’, ‘Irreparableness’, ‘Grief’, ‘Tears’, ‘Substitution’, ‘Comfort’, ‘Futurity, ‘Work’, ‘Work and Contemplation’. 22. ‘Are you aware’, the poet wrote to Browning, ‘that people blame me constantly for wanting harmony – from Mr Boyd who moans aloud over the indisposition of my “trochees” ’ (BC, x, 266). Trochaic variation is ‘in harmony’ with Renaissance poets who ‘used trochees especially often at the beginning of the line or at mid-line pause, where they were welcome as a metrical flourish that could enliven the usual pattern’ (Wright 1991, 55). (See for example, p. 69 below.) Barrett Browning’s letter continues, ‘no less a person than Mr Tennyson [said] in the one of harmony lay the chief defect of the poems, ‘athough … he could fancy that I had an ear by nature’ (BC, x, 266). See also below, pp. 94–5. 23. See below p. 121 and note 29, p. 123. 24. For Barrett Browning’s sense of guilt over her brother’s death (who had stayed in Torquay, where he drowned, at her request and against her father’s wishes) see, for example, BC, v, 99, 170. 25. See Richard Little Purdy (1954), 166. 26. There is some evidence for the speculation. It is possible, for instance, that the sonnets which appear in the ABL notebook are fair copies of drafts at an earlier stage of composition and revision in Berg I than we find them now (see note 24 below) suggesting that both notebooks (Berg I and ABL) were in use contemporaneously and the relationship between their compositions strong and fluid. 27. Isobel Armstrong has made a similar point more recently: ‘the



The Poet at Work 53

tightly intricate, formal patterning of the sonnet … appeals especially to the optical sense. One can visibly pack a thought into a restricted space of print’, ‘D. G. Rossetti and Christina Rossetti as Sonnet Writers’, Victorian Poetry, 48:4 (Winter 2010) 461–473. 28. Tennyson, In Memoriam, v, 1 in Christopher Ricks (ed.) (1989). 29. Though it is possible that the ABL version represents not a later revision but a fair copy of the original Berg draft. 30. Daniel Gabriel Rossetti (1881), Introductory Sonnet to The House of Life, line 1, in Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (1999) 827. 31. See, by contrast, a discussion of Wordsworth’s influence on the sonnet (Billone 2007, 53–9). 32. Her allusion to this scene in Twelfth Night in her biographical sketch to Horne (see above p. 1) directly follows her reference to her brother’s death, ‘Do not speak of that’, BC, vii, 353. As early as 1818, Elizabeth Barrett alluded directly to this scene (‘smile at grief’) in one of two birthday poems she composed for her brothers, George and Edward in June and July 1818 (BC, I, 62). 33. See Elizabeth Lovelie (2003), 30. 34. See below p. 57. 35. See Harrington (2007), 340–1; Leighton (1992), 81–91. 36. Berg II, Collections, D1398, is dated 1843. 37. BC, x, 80. (Though admiring of Sidney’s Defence, the letter castigates the poet for being ‘stone-critic-blind to the gods who moved around him’, Shakespeare especially, BC, x, 80). 38. BC, iii, 44, 50, 53, 116, 122, 128; BC, v. 25. 39. Robert Browning said ‘Past and Future’ ‘affects me more than any poem I have ever read’ (BC, xi, 174) and John Forster found it ‘full of pathetic meaning’ (BC, xvi, 338). Harriet Martineau wrote that she returned ‘oftenest’ to the sonnets, naming ‘Comfort’ among her favourites (BC, ix, 141) and ‘Grief’ was praised by George Henry Lewes and quoted in full in his Leader Review (30 November 1850; BC, xvi, 319). 40. See previous note and Hayter (1962), 70. 41. See ‘Grief’, line 7.

Chapter 2

Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850)

A Drama of Becoming Elizabeth Barrett’s relationship with Robert Browning often appears in biographical accounts of her life to have been a sudden drama of achievement and happiness. At the age of 40, after long years of invalidism and (save for the company of siblings) of seclusion, in which she was subject to the idiosyncratic obsessions of a neuroticpossessive father, and, latterly, to grief and guilt over the death of her younger brother, she left home and family for a life with Browning in Italy where, as wife, mother and poet, she flourished until her death. Her most famous poem, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’, the penultimate sonnet of Sonnets from the Portuguese, is a pellucid and expansive declaration of love which, with the pressure of that biography behind it, almost the power of myth, reads like Elizabeth Barrett’s song of freedom, her song of self for another. The sequence as a whole and the courtship correspondence which (there are strong internal grounds to suggest) it was written alongside,1 record a slow, painful, involuntary and vulnerable journey, full of refusals and resistances to the profound change which love both offered and seemed to demand. Love entered Elizabeth Barrett’s life not as a blessing but as a sort of primal dare. That is why, in the early sonnets, it finds its analogue in the primitive emotion and extreme gesture of ancient tragic drama, rather than in the traditional language of love. I lift my heart up solemnly, As once Electra her sepulchral urn,



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 55 And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see What a great heap of grief lay hid in me, And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn Could tread them out to darkness utterly, It might be well perhaps. (SP, V, 1–9)

That great heap of grief hitherto had made all the hidden vitality of her life. Kill it, kill me, the only self and life I have known, is the vulnerably bold challenge of this sonnet, which at the same time is an intimate offering (‘Behold and see’) of a self which grief, she fears, over and again in these poems, has made ‘hard to love’ (SP, XXXV, 12) . Whether the result will be life or death is literally left hanging in the half-line which opens the sestet – ‘It might be well perhaps’. But that it is a matter of life and death is as unequivocal here as it is in the letters: ‘I had done living, I thought’, she tells Browning ‘when you came & sought me out’ (BC, xi, 87). ‘My life was ended when I knew you, and if I survive myself it is for your sake’ (BC, xi, 323). Yet to live again seemed a reckless tempting of fate: ‘Distrusting every light that seemed to gild / The onward path’, ‘[I] feared’, she says in a late sonnet, ‘to overlean / A finger even’ (SP, XXXVI, 5–7). One of the very few available clues to the process of this work’s composition2 is a manuscript of Sonnet V above, in the ABL notebook, the ‘earliest known draft of a single sonnet from the series’.3 I want to venture that this poem might have been the first of the sonnets which Barrett Browning wrote, without any thought perhaps of writing a sequence. My reasoning relates almost equally to content and to form4. Given the poet’s creative coming-backto-life via the discipline of the sonnet, as I argued in Chapter 1, it is not surprising that she should seek to thread this second experience of new and bewildering life-content through the tight, stable architecture of the sonnet form. The subject matter of this sonnet, moreover, is likely to have made this second turn towards the sonnet (following the expansive experiment of A Drama of Exile, that is) almost instinctive. As the form belonged to a literary-

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare

56

poetic amatory tradition, its donnée was ‘Love’, the new promise of her future – ‘ “Guess now who holds thee!” – “Death,” I said. But, there,/ The silver answer rang [. .] “Not Death, but Love” ’ (I, 12–14). As it belonged to her personal history, however, it was the medium of grief and ‘Death’ and thus intrinsically connected the poet to her past. One key to this sonnet as a formal but still risky meeting point for irreconcilable emotional content lies in the revision she made at lines 4–5 below:

1 2 3 4 5

I lift my heart up solemnly I lift my heart up in my hands As once Electra her sepulchral urn And looking in thine eyes I over turn The ashes all it holds – The ashes aAt thy feet – Behold & see What a great heap woe sinne & anguish lay hid in me A great heap of unmeasured misery

The published version of lines 2–4 tallies exactly with the first brave instinctive wording, which apparently only at second thought – in the replacement of the intimate honesty of ‘ashes’ with the comparatively concealing ‘all it holds’ – seems over-bold. The subsequent reinstatement of ‘ashes’ – now as if conscious, and in spite, of the risk – might well have been caused retrospectively by the later revision from ‘unmeasured misery’ to ‘woe sinne & anguish’ to ‘woe lay hid in me’. This half-line, paradoxically, makes presently visible what once was hidden and thus fulfils rather than resists the bold open gesture of the half-line with which it rhymes in – ‘Behold and see’. There are cross-currents here even so. For ‘lie hid’ – ‘Where, alack,/ Shall time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?’ Sonnet 65 – is the only direct quotation from Shakespeare’s sonnets (in a letter concurrent with the writing of the grief sonnets, see above, p. 36) in the entire Barrett Browning correspondence up to the time the sequence was written. The allusion here (though probably unconscious) is a first compelling example of the instinctual and possibly founding nature of the relation of the sequence to Shakespeare’s. More, this connection to the earlier sonnets helps confirm that the



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 57

originating emotional medium of Sonnets from the Portuguese was as much grief as it was love. It is as though, hiddenly suspended within those two little added monosyllables, there exists the tiny wheel which propels much of the sequence: the contradictory pull of a will to preserve her old life’s ‘best jewel’ and yet to commit to ‘Time’ and the full sharing of her life and loss, even thereby renewing grief in the very acceptance of its replacement by a new life-treasure. ‘Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is/ Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change?/ That’s hardest’ (SP, XXXV, 7–9). The existential conflict recorded in Sonnet V, I am suggesting, between old self and new, living death or loving life, is (conventionally and personally) written into the very form Barrett Browning chose to help resolve it. That is why there is nothing merely embarrassingly personal or safely romantic about these sonnets: they are, in their very struggle to become, a challenge to safe being itself. When we see lines 7–8 of Sonnet V grappling to fit a deeply inconvenient, unfitting content to the ‘conveniency’5 of poetic form, it is like witnessing the struggle of a finite self to find room and shape for a new fuller existence. In successive revisions, she asks: first, whether ‘these red wild sparkles’ ‘could ever be trod out’; second, ‘if thy scorn/ Could tread not utterly’; third, ‘if thy foot in scorn/ Could tread not out to darkness/ But into dark – that I could bear henceforth’. In the published version, the conditional force of these existential probes is forced entirely into the sestet (‘But if’). Where in the grief sonnets, the sestet was characteristically the site of concentrated mental energy, here the octave has to grapple with an intractable human-emotional content which will not admit of resolution in the sestet either. But if instead Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow The grey dust up, […] those laurels on thine head, O my belovéd, will not shield thee so, That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! go. (SP, V, 9–14) ‘Thou wait beside’ (here in the finally published version) is a correction from ‘We two shall wait’, as though the instinctual marital

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syntax were now found to be anticipatory and premature. Conversely the ‘fires’ which ‘scorch’ began as ‘poor points of sorrow’, became ‘unquenched sparkles’ and then ‘heats’. Thus in manuscript we seem to see how the embers of grief are being re-ignited in sexual feeling even while she writes, inspiring the emotional over-correction which concludes the sonnet in draft – ‘Go’ – and which then demands and creates, in a further knock-on corrective impulse, Sonnet VI, which begins ‘Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand/ Henceforward in thy shadow.’ Where the grief sonnets, for all their sequential arrangement in manuscript, seem successively to test and re-configure the same life-material, this sequence appears to have generated itself out of the very force of the creative lifeenergy it began by seeking to settle. Within as well as between these sonnets, one moment or movement creates the next, kinetically, not predictably, in reformulation of a content that is insistently assertive. Thus, the imperative to separation, which replaces rather than provides resolution at the close of V, is found immediately wanting as the sequence turns to face that personal future in Sonnet VI. The point here is not simply that the human-emotional content cannot fit the strictures of a single poem but that that same content demands the formal recreation of a new self in time. ‘Shall I tell you?’ the poet says in one of her most moving letters to Browning: it seems to me, to myself, that no man was ever before to any woman what you are to me – the fullness must be in proportion, you know, to the vacancy [. .] & only I know what was behind [. .] the long wilderness without the ‘footstep’ [. .] without the blossoming rose [. .] & the capacity for happiness, like a black gaping hole, before this silver flooding. Is it wonderful that I should stand as in a dream, & disbelieve you [. .] not you but my own fate? Was ever any one taken suddenly from a lampless dungeon & placed upon the pinnacle of a mountain, without the head turning round & the heart turning faint, as mine do? (BC, xi, 304–5) Where Shakespeare liked to find a complexly dynamic situation, Barrett Browning involuntarily finds herself inside one. It is no accident that in V she should conceive of herself as a dramatic



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 59

character, nor that in VI, the octave (as we shall see more fully in Chapter 3, below p. 91) should resemble the shape of Shakespearean dramatic thinking: I shall stand Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore Alone upon the threshold of my door Of individual life, I shall command The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand Serenely in the sunshine as before, Without the sense of that which I forbore, [. .] Thy touch upon the palm. (SP, VI, 2–9) Enjambment in the Sonnets is ‘Shakespeare’s usual formal equivalent for swelling feeling’ (Vendler 1999, 149). But here (as in Shakespeare’s later drama) entire sentences, run in swift, free movement over the lines, held tensely in and together, and rendered abundantly mobile in meaning, by the quasi-antagonistic relation of line and sentence syntax. In those two emphatic adverbs in line 2, for example, the forward pressure into the future they conjure, registered by their position at the beginning of the line and of a sentence respectively, is at the same time partially arrested by what that ongoing motion delivers – ‘shadow’ (at mid-line pause) and (at line-end) vacancy, nothing. ‘Nevermore’, going on into infinity, like a future baulked or lost, has all the sudden existential resonance of that equally stranded word ‘Alone’ which opens the following line. Thus isolated from its governing adverb (not ‘Nevermore alone’, but ‘Nevermore/ Alone’), the word also fleetingly registers how absolutely ‘Alone upon the threshold of my individual life’ she will be rendered if he obeys her command (‘Go from me’). In the very crossing from line 2 to 3, it is as though a threshold is crossed into a denser inward reality which those very words produce or find. ‘Nevermore’, ‘Alone’ are no longer mere words with tidy grammatical functions. Rather, like Shakespeare’s, they house dramatic recognitions which detonate inside the very person who utters them, changing and making that person from within. Words ‘becoming’ a person, the deep inside of them, is the dynamic

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of Shakespearean character. ‘What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five/ To follow?’ asks Goneril of King Lear. ‘What need one?’ asks Regan, in that dreadful countdown to ‘Nothing’ that is Lear’s story. The word changes its function and meaning from heartless personal verb outside and against Lear, to impersonal metaphysical concept ‘O reason not the need’, outside and above, to inward mental recognition, ‘But for true need’, to vulnerable first-person expression of heart’s-need inside Lear, ‘patience I need’. So Lear himself changes his function and shape from outward man (king, father) to inward one, with the added inward dimension of now being able painedly to see his wretchedness as if from the outside: ‘you see me here, you gods, a poor old man’ (King Lear, II, ii, 435–445). The thresholds Barrett Browning crosses in these sonnets are just as fundamental and happen with the same suddenness, as a reflex of her own words. So with the transition at line 7–8 of Sonnet VI, for instance. Anticipating a future apart from her lover and yet not free of him – her life in his shadow will never feel like her own – she finds in imaginative thought, in that tiny extra mental space (‘without the sense of that which I forebore [. .]’) that he is turning into future memory as something she has lost behind her. With all the force of Lear’s ‘need’, that ‘Alone’ which she thought she had left behind, for better or worse, explodes now in front of her, in the future, and also inside her in the here and now. For ‘Thy touch upon the palm’ is experienced, touchingly, in the very moment of its imagined loss: it comes back as if from the future as something lost and rescued at once. Something truly original happens here, I am suggesting, ontologically rather than merely technically. Indeed, the turn at line 7 is evidence that, in this sequence, ontological movement is taking precedence over technical considerations and producing its own technology. So, too, in Sonnet X where tiny kinetic moments of transition re-direct her future. And when I say at need I love thee [. .] mark! [. .] I love thee![. .] in thy sight I stand transfigured, glorified aright, With conscience of the new rays that proceed Out of my face toward thine. (SP, 10, 5–9)



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These elliptical dots are not casual or careless punctuation (Barrett Browning preserved them across successive manuscript versions of the poem6). Rather they are an involuntary signal of an inward transition – in this instance from surprise at overhearing her own words (‘I love thee’), as if writing them down unexpectedly makes them true to her, to the accepting embodiment of those words (mark! [. .] I love thee [. .]) and a commitment to a self that can live out the narrative those words initiate and imply. ‘I love thee’ creates possibilities of self which are then in need of fulfilment by that self just as the words ‘Remember me’ or ‘Banished’ summon a new Hamlet (‘Hold, hold, my heart/ And you my sinews, grow not instant old,/ But bear me stiffly up’, I, v, 91–5) and a new Juliet (‘to speak that word/ Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,/ All slain, all dead’ III, ii, 112–127). Yet, in Sonnets from the Portuguese, these ontological shifts occur in instantaneous rapid micro-movements at mid-line. In the space between the first and second pronouncement, it is as if the words are finding power to be as well as to feel – that flash of transformation she describes in the final lines of this sonnet: And what I feel, across the inferior features Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s. (12–14) Elizabeth Barrett had felt she was an unlovable woman, but love now made her beautiful – not just conventionally, out of the love which he gave her, but rather out of the love she felt for him, transforming the very features of her face. What happens in the involuntary, resonant silent spaces or ‘blanks’ of these sonnets will finally make possible the transformation of the tentative, hesitant, informal repetition ‘I love thee […] mark! […] I love thee’ into the bold, formally rhythmic and rhyming repetition of her most famous sonnet. ‘I love thee … / I love thee … / I love thee … ’. In Sonnet 43, love, having once found a secure home in language, uses the cumulative force of repetition as an extra-verbal release, from within the conventional language of love, of the primary emotion latent within it. ‘I love thee’ recurs in vital memory of the phrase’s essential meaning and in verbal creation and guarantee of its inexhaustible future.

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A New Tradition? Before looking very specifically at what Sonnets from the Portuguese owes formally to the Shakespearean sonnet sequence model, I want first to consider the work’s relation to the longer tradition to which Shakespeare also influentially belongs. Most feminist criticism of recent decades has taken the emergence of a new self in Sonnets from the Portuguese for granted and connects this phenomenon to Barrett Browning’s simultaneous founding of a new poetics by transgressively staking a female claim in a traditionally male amatory tradition. The sonnets dramatize, it has been argued, Barrett Browning’s efforts to find a voice as both poet and woman. In situating herself as at once subject (the ‘I’ who loves and says so) and object of love, Barrett Browning subverts a tradition in which the roles are sexually delineated and in the process transforms herself from being ‘the object of another’s narrative into at last being the subject of her own story’. ‘The sonnets record the transformation of woman from muse/ helpmeet/ object into poet/ creator/ subject’.7 These readings offer an essential counter to the reputation for embarrassing emotional nakedness (Hayter 1962, 105) attributed to the sonnets for much of the twentieth century. Yet this stress upon the (unquestionable) novelty of Barrett Browning’s achievement can overlook the degree to which the expressive self-creation enacted in Sonnets from the Portuguese is continuous with the model of self-transformation associated with the sonnet sequence from its very beginnings. In Dante’s La Vita Nuova, each sonnet is only sufficiently understood if it is recognized as a record of ‘the instant and internal transformation of the lover’ through contact with the ideal (Spiller 1997, 62), ‘the intense moment that undoes previous meanings’ (Spiller 1997, 31). More, tracing the pattern of Dante’s work back to the ancient confessional mode which originated with Augustine, John Frecerro demonstrates that ‘the experience of conversion for Dante is at the same time the experience of writing’: The poet’s experience is the structure of his poem, at once its subject matter and its mode of being, without which it could not



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 63 have been written except in bad faith. At the same time the poem (the writing of it) is in itself a creative … part of that experience.

‘Authentic confession – the record of the death of the former self and the birth of the new’ itself partly constitutes ‘conversion by grace’. Writing, like love, that is to say, is a medium of transcendence.8 For T. S. Eliot, La Vita Nuova was written ‘to a recipe not available to the modern mind … the minds of those who have read or could have read such a document as Rousseau’s Confessions’: The modern mind can understand the ‘confession’, that is, the literal account of oneself, varying only in degree of sincerity and self-understanding … It is difficult to conceive of an age (of many ages) when human beings cared somewhat about the salvation of the ‘soul’, but not about each other as ‘personalities’. Now Dante I believe had experiences which seemed to him of some importance; not of importance because they had happened to him … but important in themselves; and therefore they seemed to him to have some philosophical and impersonal value.9 I want to suggest that Sonnets from the Portuguese might be regarded as the exception which proves Eliot’s rule and that the sequence represents a trusting relation to autobiographical form analogous to, and possibly in part derived from, Dante’s in the Vita Nuova. Barrett Browning’s admiration for and sense of affinity with Dante is abundantly in evidence in her correspondence and poetry10 and it is perhaps no accident that, when the relationship with Browning was reaching its most intense period, she translated the opening of the Inferno.11 Moreover, Dante and the Psalms together are the implicit prior models for one of the most affecting gear changes of her entire sonnet sequence. Following the involuntary overtaking of her inner resistances to love in Sonnet VI, here, at the opening of Sonnet VII, a psychological or ego-risking narrative seems suddenly lost or rendered irrelevant in a quasireligious one, in which love is not a form of peril but a mode of grace.

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The face of all the world is changed, I think, Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink, Was caught up into love, and taught the whole Of life in a new rhythm. (SP, VII, 1–7) Sonnets V, VI, and VII seem to recover and demonstrate in miniature precisely the conversative and transcendent possibilities inherent in an older, less fallen confessional mode. The sequence as a whole, moreover, demonstrates a faith in poetic form which, like Dante’s I suggest, is itself dependent upon formal faith. At least it is difficult to account for the very existence of Sonnets from the Portuguese without a paradigm of this kind. For the personal, autobiographically intimate and expressive confession of Elizabeth Barrett’s love for Browning (the ‘literal account’ of herself) was already being written in the copious love correspondence between the two. Why, if mere indiscreet self-expression were the point, did she need to write the sonnets at all? Why did she choose to commit her experience to the tight formal spaces of literary form and to this literary from in particular? Even voluntarily, it seems, the poet was putting herself and her situation inside a form where change is required, and thus doing personally and autobiographically, as we have seen, what Shakespeare did impersonally in character. As the sonnet in its volta and the sonnet sequence as a progress in time both demand transformation, so they also offer a transitional, dramatic space where language initiates and materially substantiates a selfcoming into being between the old self of the lampless dungeons and the achieved love-fulfilment of the mountain top. Writing allowed Elizabeth Barrett to be and become, not merely provisionally, but as one fully present and alive in the transition from past to future, old self to new. The publication of Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850 is rightly regarded as a key event and date in the story of the sonnet in the nineteenth century – ‘a moment of pivotally significant innovation and transformation in the form’ – not only as offering an ambitious



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and ground-breaking narrative of female-poetic self-emancipation, but as providing Barrett Browning’s successors in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with ‘a powerful and resonant model for the exploration of contemporary beliefs and illusions about love and marriage’ (Phelan 2005, 7, 60). Yet where, as I have argued, Sonnets from the Portuguese accepts the invitation to selftransformation offered by the sonnet and sonnet sequence, those same transformative possibilities tend to be denied, resisted or absent in the later nineteenth-century sequences which are most demonstrably in dialogue with Sonnets from the Portuguese – George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862) and Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innominata (1880).12 In Monna Innominata, Rossetti’s brilliantly conceived poem of wishunfulfilment, the impossibility of change is built into the very situation of the sequence. The sequence intends, of course, to exist in oppositional relation both to the tradition represented by Dante which it specifically invokes, and to Sonnets from the Portuguese, to which avowedly it was a response. By contrast with Barrett Browning’s account of ‘happy’ achieved love, in Monna Innominata, Christina Rossetti says in her Preface to the poem, the object of ‘unhappy, unconsummated love’ – a type of Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura – speaks ‘for herself’. In many ways, however, the poem reads as a companion piece to the sonnet sequence that was published in the same year as Monna Innominata, Later Life, where Rossetti recounts the dissatisfactions with earthly life experienced by a religious believer whose very belief tutors her that this life is the formal obstacle to fulfilment: We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack: Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly… . Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight, And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain. (Later Life 1881, 6, 1–2, 13–14) This sequence is itself in dialogue with the achieved secular happiness in Sonnets from the Portuguese, insofar as Rossetti’s religious faith explicitly disqualifies her from the second life chance offered to Barrett Browning:

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Allow my plea! For if Thou disallow, No second fountain can I find but Thee; No second hope or help is left to me, No second anything, but only Thou. (Later Life, 5, 5–8) For Rossetti, life in time was a condition of restless waiting, inimical to the movement and progress in time which the form of the sequence poem enjoins, and precisely the situation of the speaker in Monna Innominata as it opens: Come back to me, who wait and watch for you: – Or come not yet, for it is over then, And long it is before you come again, So far between my pleasures are and few. (I, 1–4) Where Sonnets from the Portuguese is the result of Barrett Browning’s forcing her situation through the strict formal spaces of a sequence in time, Monna Innominata, by contrast, is the outcome of an experience of time going in search of a situation through which to express itself. It is a poem dedicated to memorialising a non-event, or experiences not consummated or fulfilled in event or time or anywhere, in fact, other than in writing. Critics have drawn attention to the static quality of the sequence – ‘in the course of 14 sonnets … virtually nothing happens’ (McSweeney, 69): yet it might be truer to say that, in this sequence, nothing … happens: non-experience, or the experience of lack or of passivity, lives in this sequence – has life, breath, energy. So, for example, in the first line of the sestet of Sonnet 1: Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang Because the pang of parting comes so soon; (9–10) ‘Grows’ is a wonderful paradox here – suspending in the present, meetings whose disappointment the speaker recalls and meetings whose pain she anticipates, yet recording and even producing in the accumulation towards the line-ending, the growth of ‘almost a pang’ in the present moment of writing. There is a coalescence



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between writing and feeling here which compensates for the lack of correlation between feeling and event: for the meeting can never fulfil the hope it engenders, only renew its pain. My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon Between the heavenly days on which we meet. (11–12) By contrast with Barrett Browning, writing does not create life anew, so much as replace it. It is as if writing turns the condition of passivity which is its subject into its active opposite or inverse. What the form makes possible here is not transformation so much as translation between inverse modes of being. In Modern Love, the very changeableness of perspective and the giddying mobility between levels of being serves to prevent profound inward change. For this movement seems to happen in its own sequence, according to a dynamic of mind or body, instead of being rooted in temporal sequence, where change could become continuous or permanent. Schooling his heart, in Sonnet XIII, to learn Nature’s lesson and ‘play for Seasons; not Eternities!’ in the game of love (evolution’s great confidence trick), the speaker finds himself half reluctantly, half-abandonedly, once again subject to Nature’s law by the close of the sonnet. Yes! yes! – but, oh, our human rose is fair Surpassingly! Lose calmly Love’s great bliss, When the renewed for ever of a kiss Whirls life within the shower of loosened hair!13 (13–16) The ‘renewed for ever’ is the revealing paradox here, since the poem’s ironic consciousness knows renewal is not newness (nor ‘for ever’ infinity, bounded as it is ‘within’ a sexualized present) but rather repetition of a biologically driven impulse. ‘Love’s great bliss’ is uninnocent, like the nuptials (hardly ‘fresh’, the speaker grimly suggests, Sonnet XLI, 16) which mark the renewal of sexual relations between speaker and wife after their respective adulterous affairs: but the bliss is unstaled too, a fact of nature which not even this ironic intelligence can forestall or amend. Hence Love’s

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absolute (and in this sequence ultimately corrosive) power. At such moments of deeply ironic, yet – at another level of human seriousness – profoundly despairing, moments of surrender in Modern Love, ‘Thy touch upon the palm’ in Barrett Browning’s sequence seems, by comparison, like a moment of grace indeed. The discontinuity with former models claimed for Sonnets from the Portuguese, is arguably a much stronger (and more self-conscious) feature of the nineteenth-century sonnet sequences which were written and published after Barrett Browning’s work.14 The inward arguments about the meaning of love and marriage with which the individual sonnets of Modern Love obsessively engage are even thus exposed as a symptom of humankind’s over-evolvement from biological function into neurotic self-consciousness. Love, only delusionally a transforming event, is unmasked as the repetitive dead-end of evolution’s neutral process. By contrast, Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, even in their experimentation and formal loosenings, seem to represent not so much a gendered rejection, but a profound internalization and even conclusion of the sonnet sequence’s founding tradition. Taken together (as they are in the section below) the sonnet sequences of Shakespeare and Barrett Browning occupy something of a middle ground between the quasi-medieval conception of the lover as more divine messenger than personal goal, on the one hand, and, on the other, the modern sceptical distrust of the lover as promiscuous agent of nature’s renewal of itself. For these sequences, perhaps uniquely, are an intimate ‘speaking to’, in place of ‘speaking of’, and almost in innocence of ‘speaking against’.

A Place to Stand and Love In Any reading of Sonnet 43 needs to observe the internal musical notation at the opening of line 6: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 69 For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. I love thee to the level of everyday’s Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

5

The volume control at the start of the final line above restores the quiet speech tones of the sequence as a whole which serve to make this penultimate sonnet so uncharacteristically and happily outreaching in its tone. ‘Most quiet need’ is also an example of the kind of metrical variance which make this sequence, as I mean to demonstrate in the first part of this section, so Shakespearean in its music. The phrase asks for, almost requires, near-equivalent stress on both the first and second syllable in an otherwise perfectly regular iambic pentameter line. In unpredicted contrast to the running fluidity of the preceding line, ‘most’ (with its long vowel and double consonant) cannot be hurried, and absorbs some of the stress which the subsequent syllable expects to receive, so that ‘quiet’ is itself quietly stressed. The hushed, intimate speech of Shakespeare’s sonnets likewise is the result of the metre proceeding ‘by way of small differences – of stress, pattern, feeling, force, volume – quiet additions, or withdrawals of emphasis’ (Wright 1991, 78, 81). Sometimes the complex and highly varied metrical patterns in Shakespeare’s sonnets are definable enough for us to see how Sonnet 43, for example, imitates their tonal rhythms. The initial trochaic inversion / x x / How do I love thee? occurs at least once in almost all Shakespeare’s sonnets and the fame of Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII has likely to do with our hearing in it Shakespeare’s own most well-known rhythms: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18) When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes (Sonnet 29) When to the sessions of sweet silent thought (Sonnet 30) How like a winter hath my absence been (Sonnet 97)

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The opening of Sonnet 43 distinctly echoes what is common practice throughout Sonnets from the Portuguese. Can it be right to give what I can give? (SP, IX) Say over again, and yet once over again, (SP, XXI) When our two souls stand up erect and strong, (SP, XXII) When we met first and loved, I did not build (SP, XXXVI) Liberal trochaic inversion inflects the pentameter line with a pyrrhic rhythm (/ x x /) that is especially light (since the unstressed syllable in trochaic variation succeeds the stressed one quickly out of urgent obligation to get the metre back on track). Frequent pyrrhic variation in both sequences – ‘with Fortune and men’s ’, ‘sessions of sweet’, ‘to the level of every’, and even possibly, ‘Let me count’ – contributes to the softness of the speech tones which operate ‘within a smaller register of loudness and softness’ (Wright 1991, 82) than dramatic speech, such that even the ‘loudest’ lines (the opening of 43 for example) are light-of-touch. The regular yet apparently extra-strong emphasis in lines 2–3 on ‘depth’, ‘breadth’, ‘height’, ‘soul’, ‘reach’, is in part borrowed from the effect of (trochaic-pyrrhic) stress variation and displacement in the first line and a half. But these pyrrhic elements are closer to the passing formal effects of a system in which elements continually and subtly yield their claim to stress, or, alternatively, emotionally require it. Shakespeare’s power of small differences of stress, of pattern, of feeling, makes itself felt especially in the faint increases or fallingsoff of stress that we hear in a string of words, so that we sometimes hardly know which of two syllables in a foot receives greater stress: Shall I |compare |thee to | a sum | mer’s day Thou art | more love | ly and | more tem | perate. (Wright 1991, 81–2) The same rich ambivalence applies to, for instance, ‘When our | two souls |stand up |erect |and strong’ or ‘When we | met first |and loved,| I did | not build’. Like Shakespeare’s, Barrett Browning’s tendencies of stress, though sometimes obligatory, are usually more in the



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nature of ‘invitations to the performing reader’ to distribute stress according to the relative emotional assertion, energy or reticence required. ‘Performance returns a poem from the fixity of print to the fluidity of the particular occasion of its saying’ (Fuller 2011, 102). While, given their extreme complexity of slight variation, these love sonnets often seem equivalent to brief musical scores, waiting for the particularity of a human voice to realize them, they also seem to have that evanescent particularity inscribed into them. For it is not the case that the metrical ambiguity can simply be resolved by performance. Some of Shakespeare’s most devastatingly simple line segments present the greatest difficulty for performers: Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments: love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, (116) As with ‘Love’s not time’s fool’, there is no certainly unstressed syllable here, and no certain pattern of stress.15 While ‘successive stressed syllables are an audible motif’ (Wright, 80) in Shakespeare’s sonnets (as they are, we shall see, in Barrett Browning’s also) the metrical equivocation feels like a source of still quivering life, there on the page. Take, for example, Sonnet XIV in Sonnets from the Portuguese, the poem which seems mostly closely to hear, as well as to echo in its thought, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. (Irregular emphasis, stronger than unstressed but weaker than stressed, is marked here by \: and, while notation overall is intended to be indicative of emphases only, segments where even this approximation can be misleading are italicised.) \ / \ / \ / x / x / | If thou | must love | me, let | it be | for nought x / x / x / x / x / | Except | for love’s |sake on | ly. Do | not say x / \ x x / x / x / ‘I love her for her smile [. .] her look [. .] her way x / x / x x x / x / Of speaking gently, [. .] for a trick of thought

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare x / x / x / x / x / That falls in well with mine, and certes brought x / x / x / x / x / A sense of pleasant ease on such a day’ – x / \ x x / x / x / For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may x / x / x / x / \ / Be changed, or change for thee, – and love, so wrought / x / \ / / x / \ x May be unwrought so. Neither love me for x / \ /x / x x / / Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry, – x / x / x / x / x / A creature might forget to weep, who bore \ / x / x / \ / x / Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! \ / \ x / \ x /x / But love me for love’s sake, that evermore \ / \ / x / x/xx Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.

5

10

If anything, Barrett Browning extends and deepens Shakespeare’s characteristic mix of reserve and intimacy in this sonnet. The intoning of the words seems determined and restrained almost equally at times by the obligations at once to the constraints of form and to the closely imagined presence of their auditor. The subtle metrical equivocation and slight yieldings and takings up of stress often appear inseparable (as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 above for example) from a delicacy in tonal handling of personal pronouns. Some leaning into, for instance, ‘Thy’ and ‘Thou’ (and possibly ‘Thine’) – the first syllables of lines 12, 14 (and 10) respectively – is virtually irresistible; while conversely there is a temptation not entirely to fulfil the initial trochaic inversion in line 1 (‘If thou’) but rather to feel out the exact degree of pressure which ‘thou’ and ‘me’ admit of relative to one another. The same delicacy of additional emphasis is audible at ‘love her’ (line 3) and ‘love me’ (lines 9 and 13) and emerges from the same species of vulnerably loving respect for the listening addressee that in



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Sonnet 116 replaces resentment: ‘love is not love/ [Which] bends with the remover to remove’. It is noteworthy, by contrast that in Sonnet 43, the rhythmic phrasing established by the first line – where the (interrogative) caesura displaces stress backward to the pronoun, / x x / \ / x / x / How do I love thee? Let me count the ways, then ‘holds’ for the remainder of the sonnet, even where it loses its start-of-line position: I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death. Otherwise characteristic of the sequence in introducing tiny rhythmic variation in each successive line, Sonnet 43’s aural commitment to its vow of love is as steady as the heart’s. But the quiet authority of Sonnet 14, and much of its subtle music, proceeds from the assurance, almost at times bravado, with which Barrett Browning ‘plays’ Shakespeare’s metre. The medial pauses (and consequently sliced feet) in lines 1 and 2, produce a momentary sense of a shift to a falling metre, which modulation is picked up by a possible contrary stress pattern at the close of line 9 (‘Neither love me for’) and especially at the end of line 14 (‘through love’s eternity’). Compare, for example: / x x / x / x / x/x Like to the lark at break of day arising, where the ‘weak’, light ending similarly enhances a reservedly powerful sense of ascendancy. What is so impressive about the metrical flexibility exhibited here is that poems which are characteristically (and, in SP XIV, and Sonnets 116, especially) fearful or defiant of change, nonetheless contain, use, and discover their distinctive, even

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transcendent music subtly within that change. For even those countertendencies, it seems, are written within earshot and in pursuit of some higher music beyond the poem’s own, some sweeter unheard melody. The stunning and profoundly Shakespearean centre of the poem, however, is the chiasmic figure ‘and love so wrought/ May be unwrought so’ (compare ‘With what I most enjoy contented least’, 29). Brilliantly and boldly, it occurs at the volta, such that, even as the lines move forward, the second half-line unravellingly travels back upon the first,16 as if literally undoing the latter’s handiwork. Turn, and turn (back) again. It is a piece of skilfully inventive love wit, which then engenders another at lines 9–12. ‘Don’t love me out of pity for me, for that dear pity might make me less pitiable, and I’ll stand to lose your pity and your love both’ is almost a playful reversal of the love-equation Silvius presents to Phoebe in As You Like It: If you do sorrow at my grief in love, By giving love, your sorrow and my grief Were both extermined. (III, v, 88–90) Significantly the same rhetorical figure on which XIV turns, also resoundingly concludes Sonnet XXIII, and, in so doing, I suggest, rewrites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71, ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’, over a decade before the publication of Christina Rossetti’s long-acknowledged homage to the poem in ‘Remember’.17 I give the octave and sestet of Sonnet XXIII separately: Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead, Would’st thou miss any life in losing mine? And would the sun for thee more coldly shine, Because of grave-damps falling round my head? I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine – But [. .] so much to thee? These lines echo more of Shakespeare’s (Hamletesque) imagery in Sonnet 71– ‘[When] I am fled/ From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell/ … perhaps, compounded am with clay’ (3–4,



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10) – than Rossetti’s more (hauntingly) reticent poem (‘For if the darkness and corruption leave/ A vestige of the thoughts that once I had’, 11–12). More, segments of lines 5–7 (italicized above) seem written in mind of the very cadence of ones which occur at almost exactly the same position in the sonnet’s prototype: Nay, if you read this line, remember not The hand that writ it, for I love you so That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot (71, 5–7) Yet where Sonnet 71’s achievement is ‘the ultimate self-sacrifice’ (Vendler 1999, 328) – ‘But let your love even with my life decay’ – Sonnet XXIII closes with a version of Shakespearean chiasmus which reverses the import of its original. (I annotate to indicate how the same metrical considerations in respect of personal address, apparent in XIV, are at work here too.) \ / x / x / \ x x / I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange \ / \ / x / x / x / My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee! Wedded to the motif of successive stressed syllables here – ‘thy sake’ ‘near sweet view’ – are the internal rhymes – ‘grave’, ‘sake’, ‘change’, ‘sweet’, ‘thee’ – which are Shakespeare’s hallmark: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (Sonnet 18, 13–14) Though Barrett Browning’s structure and rhyme scheme are formally Petrarchan, the internal ties and ‘stays’ of half-rhyme and repetition are often thus definitively Shakespearean and not uncommonly, as these examples show, the resolution resides in the final lines as clinchingly as in any Shakespearean couplet. Angela Leighton finds in Sonnets from the Portuguese ‘a remembered and remote poetry of love, haunted by figures stirring from

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another time, another literature’ where the ‘difficult language of love … inherited from long ago … threatens to substitute its “Old voices” for the new’.18 I have been arguing in this chapter, by contrast, that the old forms, as deep literary memory rather than haunting shadows, help to make possible the creation of new ones, at the level of being itself. For, in the sequence, as in the correspondence, a traditional literary love language and its music seem not so much to be second-hand borrowings of old as to emerge as a fresh discovery. In the letters, very early in the correspondence, the lovers allude (shyly at first) to Romeo and Juliet. ‘See now’, Browning writes, ‘how of that “Friendship” you offer me (and here Juliet’s word rises to my lips) – I feel sure once and for ever’ (BC, x, 44). The quotation is ‘guessed at once’ by Elizabeth Barrett and closes her letter of reply: I have no joy of this contract today! It is too unadvis’d, too rash & sudden. (BC, x, 53) One reason these sonnets are powerfully unique is that they are written by a mature, deeply literary woman, for whom writing was where she felt most alive (‘I seem to live while I write’, she told Browning, ‘it is life for me’ BC, x, 134), now experiencing at firsthand the kind of emotion she had only read about in books, but in whom those very books now lived anew and helped give expressive life to vital present experience.19 The letters show that for both lovers this was a journey from habit-formed maturity to a kind of original innocence. ‘Being no longer in the first freshness of life’, wrote Browning, ‘when real love, making itself at once recognized as such, did reveal itself to me, I did open my heart to it with a cry – nor care for its overturning all my theory – nor mistrust its effect upon a mind set in ultimate order’ (BC, xi, 80). ‘You cannot guess what you are to me’, (she to him). ‘It is something to me between dream & miracle … as if some dream of my earliest brightest dreaming-time had been lying through these dark years to steep in the sunshine, returning to me in a double light’ (BC, xi, 177). ‘I was thinking the other day that certainly … I had loved you all my life unawares’ (BC, xii, 97). This seems, like Romeo and Juliet’s own



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shared lyricism, a half-amazed, half-delighted recognition that they have joined a literary tradition of lovers, found the thing-in-itself, for themselves. So, when Juliet’s words eventually re-emerge in this sequence as her own, Elizabeth Barrett seems simply to enjoy, at one level, the verbal resources of an amatory tradition that she suddenly and unexpectedly finds herself writing from within: The first time that the sun rose on thine oath To love me, I looked forward to the moon To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon And quickly tied to make a lasting troth. Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;20 (XXXII, 1–5) ‘Quickly … quick-loving … quickly loathe’ create their own confidently buoyant rhythm (compare ‘To me, fair friend, you never can be old,/ For as you were when first your eye I eyed,/ Such seems your beauty still’ Sonnet 104, 1–3) and sound more like a verbal notation of the quick of love than of the fear of its passing. At many points in the sequence, however, a Shakespearean language seems to be summoned metaphysically, as well as musically. The sestet of Sonnet VI, for example – ‘The widest land/ Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine/ With pulses that beat double’ (8–12) – recalls, in idea, Sonnet 36 – ‘Let me confess that we two must be twain,/ Although our undivided loves are one’ (1–2) – and Sonnet 47 – ‘Thyself, away, are present still with me;/ For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move,/ And I am still with them, and they with thee’ (9–12). Yet, the sestet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56, Let this sad interim like the ocean be Which parts the shore where two contracted new Come daily to the banks, that, when they see Return of love, more blest may be the view (9–12), is also heard in Sonnet VI (above), as well as in the conclusion of Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XV:

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Sonnets from the Portuguese is inflected throughout in fact – from as early as Sonnet II (‘Men could not part us with their worldly jars,/ Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend’ 10–11) – with Shakespeare’s most potent language of time and change:22 When I have seen the hungry ocean gain Advantage on the kingdom of the shore, And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main, Increasing store with loss and loss with store … This thought is as a death, which cannot choose But weep to have that which it fears to lose. (Sonnet 64, 5–8, 13–14) Remarkably, however, even as Shakespeare’s words provide a language for love’s power, that same power, in Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XXII, now seems to answer Sonnet 64’s love ‘fears’. The death-thought is transformed and amended in a triumph of love over finality,23 the confidence of which seems almost to outdo Shakespeare’s. Let us stay Rather on earth, Belovéd, – where the unfit Contrarious moods of men recoil away And isolate pure spirits, and permit A place to stand and love in for a day, With darkness and the death-hour rounding it. (9–14) The conclusion absorbs into itself both the loss of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 and the affirmation of love in Sonnet 116 as an ‘everfixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken’: Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. (5–6, 11–12)



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In thus playing Shakespeare to their own love tune, however, Barrett Browning’s sonnets at the same time generate a distinctively personal vernacular of love – a species of that ‘fresh, strange music’ (see above, p. 2) which Robert Browning first admired. It is striking how the fearlessness of her language is often a mysterious reflex of her fears as a lover. If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange And be all to me? Shall I never miss Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange, When I look up, to drop on a new range Of walls and floors, [. .] another home than this? (XXXV, 1–6) The formality of Victorian courtship helps to register here the absoluteness of the exchange which committed love exacts – literally, home for home; (child) self for (adult) self; common for exclusive kiss; all for all. There will be no going back: a loving union will cost not less than everything. Yet these perilous high stakes have their witness in this sonnet in a fragile and unwonted childlike mistrust of novelty and strangeness (‘shall I never miss?’). Can it be safe to entrust myself and life to another, to one other? One reason these sonnets fully deserve recognition as fellows with, rather than merely imitators, of Shakespeare’s own, is that, like their precursors, even in their historical, personal and linguistic particularity, they thus disclose the deep grammar of love. Indeed, in the correspondence, as often in the sequence, ‘love’ seems a rather clumsy shorthand term for the range of apparently diverse emotions – fear, pain, loss – which, if they stand for love, at one level, as a kind of naïve witnessing of its presence, also stand in for it for a long time. ‘Love’ is a word the lovers often explicitly hesitate to use early on, instinctively turning to a language of belief. She to him: ‘I never did otherwise than ‘BELIEVE’ you … never did nor shall do’ (BC, xi, 49). He to her: ‘I believe in you absolutely, utterly … (my first & last word – I believe in you!)’ (BC, xi, 52). Belief is the primary language that makes possible everything else. Yet, like Shakespeare’s ‘unperfect actor on the stage’ (Sonnet 23, 1), Barrett Browning’s

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‘poor, tired, wandering singer’ (SP, III, 11–12), ‘an out of tune/ Worn viol’ (SP, XXXII), can believe in Browning’s love for her far more readily than she can believe herself, as a mere personal ‘I’, to be worthy of it. The fears and the experience that gave her power to write almost like Shakespeare also left her with a vulnerablity in age which Juliet had felt only in youth. The keynote question for Barrett Browning, her ‘still renewable fear’ (XXXVI, 9), first and almost to the last, is not how do I love thee? but how can you love me? What hast thou to do With looking from the lattice lights at me? (III, 9–10) Yet, as I have suggested, we have that relentless sense of unworthiness to thank for the existence of the sonnets. Robert Browning’s love had given Barrett Browning the promise of an unlooked-for second life. But new life and self felt nervously unprotected by the love which had created it: Could it mean To last, a love set pendulous between Sorrow and sorrow? (XXXVI, 2–4) Without self-belief enough as yet to support its own self-emergence, the poetry offered a form in which this coming-to-life self could reside ahead of its full and secure realization in her. In submitting experience to a form in which change must happen, Sonnets from the Portuguese represents a brave voluntary commitment to an involuntary process, and the literary analogue as well as adjunct of Elizabeth Barrett’s commitment and marriage to Robert Browning. The finest and most singular moments are where her resistant energy suddenly bursts into a loving one. ‘Yes call me by my pet-name’, she says in a late sonnet (XXXIII, 1) and immediately regrets that she cannot answer with ‘the same heart’ as when a child. Sonnet XXXIV continues: When called before, I told how hastily I dropped my flowers or brake off from a game,



Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) 81 To run and answer with the smile that came At play last moment, and went on with me Through my obedience. When I answer now, I drop a grave thought, – break from solitude; – Yet still my heart goes to thee […] ponder how [. .] Not as to a single good, but all my good! Lay thy hand on it, best one, allow That no child’s foot could run as fast as this blood. (5–14)

Earlier she had dropped everything and come running as a child. Now she does so as what others might consider an old maid. But really these lines are the heart’s (neither child’s, nor old maid’s) conscious pledge to its own commitment: bravely and unashamedly letting go of regret or fear, they are an enormous running ‘yes’ to life and love, in which the grace of giving is felt in the pulse. All losses are restored.

Notes  1. See Works, 425–6 and Dow (1980), xi.  2. ‘Connections between the correspondence and the sonnets indicate that she had probably commenced the sequence by August 1845 … but the precise date cannot be determined from either the letters or the extant manuscripts’ (Works, 425).  3. See Works, 446. The sonnet is written at the end of the notebook (DI411, see p. 24 above).  4. See also note 18 below.  5. The word is Sidney’s in The Defence of Poesy, see Alexander (2004), 23.  6. I am thinking particularly of their preservation from the 1846 manuscript (British Library, see Collections D875) through to the printer’s copy for the first publication (Armstrong Browning Library, see Collections D876). See also below, note 21.  7. See, for most influential and representative examples, Leighton (1986), ‘How do I love thee? The Woman’s Right to Say’, 91–113; Cooper (1988), ‘Eve’s Songs of Experience: Poems of 1850’, 99–123; Mermin (1989), ‘Courtship, Letters, Sonnets from the Portuguese’,

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113–146; van Remoortel (2006), 260–62. For the most recent work in this tradition see van Remoortel (2011), ‘Women’s Sonnets of the 1800s-1840s’, 89 -114, which argues that Barrett Browning’s transgression of gender norms took place within a genre already ‘feminized’ (89) and concludes with a call for criticism which considers the engagement of Barrett Browning’s sequence with masculine as well as feminine literary traditions (114).  8. See John Freccero (1986), 1–15, 26–28 and John Freccero (ed.) (1965), 1–7.  9. T. S. Eliot (1965), 62–3. 10. As early as 1826 she berates a correspondent for omitting Dante from an enumeration of modern great poets (BC, I, 260); in the record of her first meeting with Wordsworth she notes particularly his reading to her a translation of a Dante sonnet (BC, iii, 317). Though references to and quotations from Dante continue to the litter the entire correspondence, these become particularly marked in the courtship correspondence or in letters contemporaneous with it: ‘Dante’s poetry seems to come down in hail, rather than rain – but count me the drops congealed in one hailstone!’ (BC, x, 189). See also, BC, x, 93, 224, 311. Dante’s presence is marked in Casa Guisi Windows and Aurora Leigh. 11. Three months into her correspondence with Browning, she wrote: ‘Within this fortnight, out of mere pure self will, I have “done into English” nearly the whole of the first canto of the Inferno in the Dantesque metre, just to try it’ (BC, x, 157). For the translation see Collections D1210–1213 and Works, 689–94. 12. All references to Rossetti are from Crump and Flowers (2001), 294. 13. All references from George Meredith, Modern Love in Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (1999), 793–805. 14. For fuller discussions which touch upon the non-transformative or non-progressive aspects of these sequence-poems, see McSweeney, ‘Unkissed Lips: Women and Love’, where it is argued of Monna Innominata that though ‘the sequence might seem to describe a process … there is only the simulacra of movement and change’, 69; and Cynthia Grant Tucker (1972), 351–65, where Meredith’s sonnet-persona is viewed as ‘an anti-



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sonnet sonnet-protagonist’ within a sequence of which the greatest ironic achievement is to collapse ‘the sonnet’s traditional assertion – and ostensible demonstration – that with all its difficulties, the poet’s love was a great creative force’, 365, 361. 15. See Wright (1991), 84–7, for a full discussion of metrical variation in 116. 16. It is noteworthy that the comma at line 8 (after ‘love’) appears after ‘wrought’ in the 1846 manuscript and is absent altogether in the 1849–50 manuscript version. 17. Although Rossetti’s poem was composed in the same decade, in 1849, see Crump and Flowers (2001), 892 and Kerrigan (1999), 44. 18. ‘Stirring “a Dust of Figures”: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Love’, Browning Society Notes 17, nos. 1–3 (1987/ 88), 11–23: repr. in Donaldson (1999), 218–32, 224. 19. See Works, ii, 425–80 for an account of some of the literary influences on the sequence. 20. The scene echoed here and in the letter is Romeo and Juliet, II, i, 158–62. Significantly ‘ere I was ware’ (II, i, 145), relating to Romeo’s having overheard Juliet’s ‘true-love’ passion, occurs repeatedly in Barrett Browning’s correspondence (BC, iii, 260; iv, 178; vi, 16) and the line is echoed in the very first sonnet of the sequence, at Love’s dramatic entrance in the sestet (‘Straightway I was ’ware,/ So weeping, how a mystic shape did move/ Behind me’ 9–11). See also Works, ii, 443, for discussion of allusions to Romeo and Juliet in Sonnet I. It is one possible clue that the allusive thinking in Sonnet I is closer to that in XXXII (and thus ‘later’ in the composition of the sequence than the more classically derived language of V: see above p. 55). 21. In the 1846 and 1849–50 manuscripts the line-ending is ‘memory […]’. 22. See Marshall (2009), 68–9 and Mermin (1989), 138. 23. See John Beer (1993), 36, Against Finality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, where, instructively in this context, Beer contrasts Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 with Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised by Joy’ to illustrate the absence of consolation for final endings in Wordsworth’s world.

Chapter 3

Aurora Leigh

As early as 1845, Barrett Browning wrote to Robert Browning, that her ‘chief intention just now is the writing of a novel-poem … completely modern … running into the midst of our conventions … and so meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the Truth as I conceive of it out plainly’ (BC, x, 101–2). In the same letter, she not only reiterates her ‘love’ of ‘the Drama’, and urges Browning that his own ‘great dramatic power would work more clearly & audibly in the less definite ‘mould’.1 She also announces that she is engaged on a second translation of the Prometheus, and considering ‘a monodram of my own … of Aeschylus as he sat a blind exile on the flats of Sicily’2 (BC, x, 102). In this chapter, I argue that the novel-poem which became Aurora Leigh represents a resumption and (since the work was contemplated very shortly after the poet’s completion of A Drama of Exile) even continuation of the dramatic thinking which Barrett Browning had ventured in her early work. Since its publication in 1856, Aurora Leigh has been variously characterized as autobiographical, a type of Greek tragedy or opera, prose cut into poetry, social satire and more recently, and influentially, as a feminist epic, and a female Kunstlerroman.3 This variety is its own testimony to the fact that no single generic category can do justice to the work’s amplitude of life, as George Eliot admiringly recognized in an early review: ‘There is simply a mind pouring itself out in song as its natural and easiest medium’, its ‘far-stretching thoughts’ carried ‘swiftly’ on a ‘broad river’.4 The exuberantly fluent breadth and ‘stretch’ of this poem is at once made possible and held together, I mean to demonstrate, by its essentially performative mode. It is indeed a ‘bravura performance’ (McSweeney, xx), not as a matter



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of showy or indulgent extravagance, but as an aspect of the poem’s founding formal principle and, specifically, of Barrett Browning’s virtuoso dexterity in the art of Shakespearean dramatic blank verse.

The Blank Verse Adventure In Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, George T. Wright suggests that, over the last 200 years, the demise of iambic pentameter as the chief metre of English poetry probably owes much to ‘its coming to be understood, even by poets themselves, as an available prosodic form, a metre to write poems “in” … rather than a kind of heroic adventure’. Where nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets of iambic verse often appear self-consciously to invoke a sacred tradition, Renaissance practitioners, for whom the metre was new, ‘could play with it, enjoy it, twist it, thwart it, make music with it, dress their own living speech in its expressive folds’. The second half of Shakespeare’s career saw the emergence of a verse art unique in the history of the metre as the poet exploited its expressiveness – the ‘uncanny capacity to vary the metrical norm without fundamentally violating it’ – to an unprecedented degree. Shakespeare ‘feels a freedom at any point – in mid-speech, between speeches … to vary the meter, shorten or lengthen the line … place lines in ambiguous metrical relation to each other, or break the metre altogether … for a momentary disruption of the verse’. Pope, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning ‘writing many thousands of lines without a single departure from standard iambic pentameter … have largely ignored the distinctive metrical features of the poet they most admire and have thus never recovered the early excitement [as to the metre’s possibilities] of the poet who was “in on it from the beginning” ’ (Wright 1991, 18–19, 101, 105, 136). The contention of this chapter is that, if Wright’s rule holds even partially good,5 Barrett Browning is the outstanding exception to it. For not only is it the case, I argue, that Aurora Leigh recognizably reproduces many of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s later blank verse. With her usual un-anxious gift for getting clear to ‘beginnings’ or creative origins, Barrett Browning,

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like Shakespeare, also retuned the metre to her own distinctive energies. The received wisdom in respect of Aurora Leigh is that its ‘swift and chaotic’ motion has, and obeys, no order. ‘Speed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence – these are the qualities that hold us enthralled’ (Woolf, 204, 207). In George Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody (1908), where Shakespeare’s ‘unbridled liberty’ is approvingly contrasted with the (nonetheless thoroughly admired) ‘correctness’ of Tennyson or Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is dismissively decried as ‘undisciplined emotional gushing … slatternly, not to say slovenly’ (Saintsbury 1908, iii, 212–6, 249). The metrical ‘liberties’ in Aurora Leigh have recently been rehabilitated in feminist readings which regard the poet as seeking to ‘“tune” her verse to the music of [the] very earthly, tangible and visible spheres of the female body.’6 Yet such critiques leave out of account the work’s intrinsic allegiance to rhythmic rules – noticed (unfavourably) by Virginia Woolf herself7 – and the considerable attention given to what is permissible in blank verse, in view of those rules, in the letters and prose (see below, p. 95). Indeed, Saintsbury’s own characterization of Shakespeare’s dramatic art – as ‘the work of a man for whom blank verse has no further secrets, who has every trick of it literally at his finger’s ends’ (ii, 42) – itself echoed and corroborated the explicit notice Barrett Browning herself had given to Shakespeare’s ‘distinctive metrical features’ as early as The Book of the Poets (1842):8 He is the most wonderful artist in blank verse of all in England, and almost the earliest. We do not say that he first broke the enchaining monotony … We do not even say what we might, that his hand first proved the compass and infinite modulation of the instrument; but we do say that it never answered another hand as it answered his. We do say, this fingering was never learned of himself by another … Often when he is at the sweetest, his words are poor monosyllables, his pauses frequent to brokenness. (Works, iv, 463) The manuscript of Aurora Leigh is especially valuable for demonstrating Barrett Browning’s sensitivity, in her own artistic practice, to



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Shakespeare’s unprecedented versatility in respect of the expressive possibilities of blank verse metre. When Barrett Browning wrote, during the composition of Aurora Leigh, ‘Between five & six thousand lines written, & more still to write – Blank verse. Why not?’9 the tone, from a poet who had had ambitions to write in blank verse from her earliest dramatic endeavours,10 was not casual or defiant so much as determinedly confident. For to ‘write in’ Shakespeare’s verse, for Barrett Browning, was as intuitive, and non-imitative, as writing in his language. As Shakespeare’s words were ‘inner to the bone’ (Marshall 2009, 479), so Shakespearean blank verse was the beat of the poet’s rhythm. Yet if the Shakespearean model was an instinctual inner resource, it was also an exacting external rigour and the tense overlap of these allegiances is one key to the work’s dynamic energy. Great Freedom within Great Order The evidence that the defining structural principle of late Shakespearean blank verse – the oscillation between fixity and fluidity, obedience to iambic pentameter rules and unpredictable or irregular deviation from them – was a part of Barrett Browning’s very nervous system, lies in the fluent first pages of Book One of Aurora Leigh in manuscript. The following extract corresponds to the opening of the third verse paragraph of Book I, lines 29–39: I write. My mother was a Florentine, Whose great black eyes were shut from seeing me When scarcely I was four years old. My life Was a spark snatched up from a failing lamp Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail And could not bear the joy of giving life The mother-rapture slew her. If her kiss Had left a longer weight upon my lips It might have settled me and flanked me More deeply in the world, and reconciled And fraternised my soul more perfectly With the new order. (AL/MS, 5)11

5

10

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The pattern for the demonstrably self-conscious first-foot spondee in the opening line is irresistibly established in the published version by the opening of the preceding paragraph – ‘I, writing thus’ – with which the narrative proper commences. These boldly irregular firstperson syllables, at the very start of the work, help to show how the energy and vitality of this work derives in part from Barrett Browning’s having imported from Sonnets from the Portuguese the habit of embedding metrical segments (spondaic, lines 1 and 2, pyrrhic, line 4, trochaic, line 12) within, and against, the iambic metre, thus producing successive lines with rhythmical contours at unpredictable variance to one another. Even regularity of stress is often rendered counter-rhythmic (trochaic) by virtue of the frequent mid-line pauses (lines 7 and 5). Above all, Barrett Browning’s (definitively late) Shakespearean tendency to make enjambment the rule rather than the exception, facilitated (here and throughout) by liberal use of feminine endings (line 11), sees sentences flowing over three, four (and in Aurora Leigh often more) lines, where the urgency to obey the pull toward syntactical completion (lines 3–4, 7–8, 10–11) inevitably competes with metrical rule. One could stop Aurora Leigh almost anywhere to show – as I will be doing in the course of this chapter – the metre thus ‘taking part’ (AL, I, 18) with the sentence flow against the rhythmic regularity which it nonetheless preserves. We saw in Chapter 2 how Barrett Browning found in Shakespearean rhythm and counterrhythmic patterns a dramatic language for personal transformation and for intoning intimate ‘conversation’. As with Shakespeare himself, the iambic experiments in the sonnet form were an apprenticeship for the poet’s more extended blank verse adventure (Wright 1991, 90). Yet the Shakespearean terms of that adventure – its risky journey between rule-breaking and rule-boundedness – is most apparent in the sections of Aurora Leigh where we might expect the poem to be most rule-free. Book V offers Barrett Browning’s most definitive statements on her own artistic practice and precepts, and these are the more authoritative because their expression seems so exactly to demonstrate the procedures they extol. This intuition is largely confirmed by the evidence of the original manuscript. (A) and (B) show, in draft, two of the most justly famous and frequently quoted articles of faith:

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(A) (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (10) (11) (B) (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

What form is best for poems? Let me think Of forms less – & the external. Trust the spirit As Sovran nature does ^To make the form as Sovran nature does For otherwise we only [illeg] [illeg] imprison spirit And not embody. Inward evermore To outward – so in life & so in art Which still is Which is still life. (AL/MS, 161) After all What’s passion but something suffered – ay and Art Is something used. Artists be and do Transfixing with a central power The common man’s experience sweet or nay And turning outward with a sudden wrench The inmost – Artists feel the less Because they say? (AL/MS, 167)

In a Book (and whole work) which is heavily revised, the published version of these central tenets of Barrett Browning’s art, is remarkably faithful to the instinctual formal ‘trust’ of the original draft. Though in A, lines 7–9 are a later revision written over an earlier draft, they are not therefore a merely second-order reworking. Characteristically, the poet scored out her entire first thought on paper in order the more completely to re-inhabit it in spirit and in primary pursuit of the ‘best’ formulation, as an actor in rehearsal or performance might find his language and metre in Shakespeare’s part-script (see below, p. 94). There is plenty of evidence, moreover, of a lively thoughtlessness and unsettlement of the metrical line as the sentence imposes its own order, running over the edges, splitting the line, stopping at will. In line 2, for example, the mid-line break (marked by a comma at publication) forces back upon ‘less’ the greater stress that (paradoxically) the word contextually requires

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x / / x [x] / x x / x / x Of forms less – & the external. Trust the spirit. The emphasis proleptically notices and matches, moreover, how not thinking of form is the galvanic power which at once produces – and is itself formalized as – sudden thought, in the rapid transition from inward impulse to outward realization repeatedly signalled at the line endings. (These are numbered here for ease of reference in the discussion which follows): (i)

(A 1–2) Trust the spirit To make the form

(ii)

(A 7–9) Inward evermore To outward

(iii)

(B 7–8) And turning outward with a sudden wrench The inmost

While the high speed of these movements will hardly come as a surprise given that their very subject matter sanctions them, the fact that the speed is written into (ii) and written out of (i) and of (iii) (as we shall see below, p. 100) is one important corrective disclosure the manuscript provides to the impression of the poem’s formally loose and chaotic, headlong, heart-throbbing motion.12 I want to slow down the quickness of these transitions, as Barrett Browning herself did in revision, to illustrate how each of these examples, as we see them in the light of manuscript reworking, is evidence of the way in which this poet’s instinctive breaking of the rules is always dependent upon a strong sense of, and – more often than not – flexible use of, those rules. Thus, for example, in (i) the re-positioning of the dependent clause – so that the line becomes,



Aurora Leigh 91 Trust the spirit As sovran nature does, to make the form

barely alters, metrically, an already regular line. Yet the move is three or even four-fold in its effect. First, it renders the transition at (ii) (‘inward evermore/ To outward’) more singularly dramatic (and that apparently later revision might well have produced this ‘earlier’ one); second, it rhetorically delays the force of the line’s main verb and import; third, it sets ‘form’ and ‘spirit’ (in the preceding and subsequent line – ‘For otherwise we only imprison spirit’) in closer opposition at line end, a contrast made more tense by ‘form’ fulfilling the conventional requirement for a masculine stress, where ‘spirit’ substitutes a feminine ending; fourth, it sets a fully regular iambic line – completed now, and end-stopped, by a ‘strong’ substantive noun (‘form’) rather than ‘weak’ modal verb (‘does’) – against the multiple irregularities of the preceding and subsequent lines where the metrical freedom and urgency is accelerated by the addition of two extra syllables (without elision, see above, p. 90). The free energy of ‘spirit’, that is to say, literally does not fit the fixed definitions of ‘form’. Rather it fleetingly ‘opens up a hole in time’ (AL/ MS, 29) an in-between dimension, momentarily free from the timebound current. The emphatically hovering adverb is where Barrett Browning often seeks to ‘catch’ or make room for a tiny slippage, substance, or ‘spirit’ before these kinks out of time are immediately pulled back into the ongoingness of the verse by the regularity of the subsequent line. Compare (ii) above ‘Inward evermore/ To outward’ with the example discussed already in Chapter 2 (p. 59): Nevermore Alone upon the threshold of my door As we shall see later in this chapter, Barrett Browning gathers into these line endings a sense of the saturated ‘more than’ that belongs to, but does not fit into, the linearity of ordinary time. Barrett Browning so much relishes the disproportioning which release from line and sentence congruence brings in Aurora Leigh, that her revisions show her repeatedly on the one hand, disrupting the rhythmic flow of

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her first instincts, while, on the other, reinstating regularity often to showcase its opposite. Lines 1–3 of B above became at publication: (1)

Passion is

(2) But something suffered after all. (3)

While Art

(4) Sets action on the top of suffering: The metrically regular lines are repeatedly sliced to disrupt the ongoing regularly rhythmic flow to instinctively adroit effect. In the adjustment at line 1, the most primary verb is boldly given most primary position, only to pinpoint how merely being is, even essentially, not enough, for being per se too passive relative to the active uses of Art. The break at line 2 moves backwards and forwards across the broken line in its resonance of effect. Like Barrett Browning’s hanging adverbials, ‘after all’, now positioned at verse paragraph end, pays swift passing duty to ‘something suffered’, inwardly and humanly, in fleeting resistance to the rhetorically diminishing force of ‘But’ at line beginning. At the same time, the move to a new verse paragraph at the line break emphatically sets ‘Art’ literally and visually ‘on the top’ of ‘suffering’, and sets a strong over a weak stress, a spondee effectually (‘While Art’) over a phyrric (‘suffering’). Through all, however, the parallelism of their prominence (both occur at line end, following a late pause), and the impressive word of simultaneity ‘while’, tie Passion and Art together as reciprocally dependent. If there were any doubt about the instinctive control of these metrical adjustments, witness these further examples where rhythm is precisely the poet’s subject matter: (I) I ripped my verses up And found no blood upon my rapier’s point The heart in them was just an embryo’s heart yet had   that it should die

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That never throbbed – A facile melody Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life unorganised to any And tones of facile rhythm that never made a tune. (AL/MS, 75) (ii) And so, through forced [illeg] work & spontaneous work The inner life informed the outer life Reduced the unequal blood to settled rhythms. (AL/MS, 33) In (i) the arrhythmic mid-line pause (‘That never throbbed – A facile melody’) is replaced to produce a perfectly and unperturbedly, unthrobbing regular line (‘That never yet had throbbed that it should die’) in imitation of the facile over-regularity of the heart. Conversely, the revision in the final line from ‘And tones of facile rhythm that never made a tune’ to ‘And tones unorganised to any tune’ introduces rhythmic disruption to match the import of the line, just as the additional syllable to the last line of (ii) renders its rhythm ‘unequal’ indeed. Such revisions suggest that however apparently casually or instinctively the poet might produce line breaks or pauses, she was acutely aware of their possible effects. More, this poet’s creative instinct was never simply to obey the spontaneous rhythms of the body but, like Shakespeare, more edgily to syncopate and play off a natural rhythm against an ordered one, in order to motor and guarantee, through the very friction between the two, a vigorously real and perpetual ‘galvanic life’. ‘This is Living Art’ This chapter’s main contention, however, is that what Barrett Browning learned or intuited or received as by osmosis through her deep reading of Shakespeare was not a ‘craft’ but a mindset or orientation. What Aurora Leigh picks up and transmits is the great subtle propensity and energy of Shakespearean blank verse not as a written but as a dramatic verse form.

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The distinguishing feature of Shakespeare’s dramatic blank verse is its orientation towards performance. Its status as verse written to be heard, not read, is what helps to release the verse in production as well as in performance from mechanical regularity and from obeisance to the line end as the unambiguous point of destination. Shakespeare’s audience hears a deep rhythmic iambic ‘current’ rather than a succession of full verse lines. Conversely, the verse lines themselves are the actor’s score (and often only the most recent version of the script) open to countless possibilities of variation and improvisation in the realization of performance. Shakespeare’s verse was not so much a formal expression of thought but a ‘medium’ through which thought could be formed, shaped, brought into being. ‘Shakespearean characters find their metre and language as they speak’ (Wright 1991, 287; Barton 1984, 35–6). Barrett Browning’s repeated expression of dislike of Shakespeare on stage – ‘in reading and taking pleasure from written Drama’, she wrote ‘my ideas of it never enter the theatre from first to last’ (BC, vi, 26) – is only apparently in conflict with, and actually more of a clue to, her appreciation of the performative orientation and properties of his verse. We saw in Chapter 1 the evidence for the poet composing internally before setting to work on the page (see above p. 30). ‘I have a confusion of poems running about in my head – a chaos of beginning & ending & little pieces of middles’ (BC, iv, 151). In an early letter to Browning she wrote of ‘work[ing] one’s verses in one’s head quite as laboriously as on paper’ (BC, x, 78). In the letters she alludes (without explanation) to her ‘dislike of being read to. I never could bear it’ (BC, ii, 147) and further evidence for her inwardly aural sense of verse comes in the poetic forerunner to Aurora Leigh,13 ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’: Poets ever fail in reading their own verses to their worth, – For the echo in you breaks upon the words which you are speaking, And the chariot-wheels jar in the gate through which you drive them forth. (166–8) Post-creative performance of her poetry jars, it seems, with the essential performative nature of the verse lines which first ‘drive[s]



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them forth’. More, as a formal technician, she had long noticed the distinctions possible within blank verse types. ‘I do not like the additional syllable on any blank verse’, she wrote, with that respect for rules which I argued in Chapter 1 was implicit in her every departure from them; ‘except’, she goes on, ‘the blank verse of a dramatic poem, in which licences of every kind are more admissible than in other kinds of composition’ (BC, ii, 238). In Barrett Browning’s letters, Shakespeare ‘seamlessly moves into the texture of [the poet’s] language’ (Marshall 2006, 478). What she will have ‘heard’ in the Shakespearean rhythms through which she was accustomed thus to speak her very self was not a verse form to express thought ‘in’ so much as a ‘medium’ through which thought could be formed in the fresh new circumstances of the present. Iambic pentameter in Shakespearean drama was at once resiliently itself and inexhaustibly and flexibly susceptible to the human tones of the content which passes through it. ‘By the end of Shakespeare’s career, the English dramatic blank verse line had become hospitable to virtually any phrases the poet wants to use’, at once liberated from ‘the severe stewardship of autocratic meter’ while continuously obligated to it. What Aurora Leigh reproduces is the ‘flexible sinuous line’ of Shakespeare’s later plays, an iambic pentameter which ‘always hovers between poetry and prose’ (Wright 1991, 208). The poet’s own description of Aurora Leigh as a ‘novel-poem’ (BC, x, 102) at once captures the hybridity of its medium and also disguises the essentially Shakespearean dramatic foundations of it.14 ‘Shakespeare’s example and inspiration had the most positive effects on Victorian poetic writing’ not in ‘the theatre or conventional dramatic form’ but ‘in poetry that finds new ways of being truly “dramatic”, whether its formal allegiances are to monologue, lyric or elegy’ (Poole, 2004, 156). So Aurora Leigh is dramatic in a definitively Shakespearean sense, I am saying, for being the outcome of a performative language which is of the moment, the speaking instant. The Shakespearean actor has the advantage of ‘having lived with the language for a long time at rehearsals, but he has only one opportunity to convey it to an audience’ (Barton 1984, 57). Shakespeare’s own actors’ habit of conning their lines in

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‘parts’ (rather than whole texts) made creative suddenness intrinsic to the actor’s experience in performance. The actor, knowing the part-text and the cue, but not the identity of the cue-speaker, ‘begins with his own part, and always moves out into the world with that as his founding prepossession… . So this particular technology – not naming the cuer – ensures that the event of performance retains its own urgent immediacy’ and ‘the electric reactivity of living drama’: The things that are happening are happening now, in the present… . Parts can concentrate a sense of life at a cusp … Shakespeare’s drama is premised upon immediacy: presence in Shakespeare is all about imminence, a continuing condition of ‘about to be’. (Palfrey and Stern 2007, 92, 152–3) Shakespeare’s rhythms were Barrett Browning’s ‘natural’ inclination for a work in which the present is at once the subject and the organizing formal principle. Readers have noted the ‘confusing switches between retrospective and present-tense narration and a blurring of the distinction between the narrating self and the experiencing self’ in Aurora Leigh. At Book Five ‘the mode of narration changes from authoritative retrospection to an immersion in events that presupposes no distance between character and narrator’ (McSweeney, xxiv–v). In fact, the work’s tense, from the outset, is the present (‘Barrett Browning uses the phrase “I write” four times in the first two stanzas’ Kaplan 1978, 10) and not in any mere formal sense. Not only is it the case that the present activity of writing is frequently, and often with a routine lack of self-consciousness, the very subject of the poem – ‘Then, I wakened up/ More slowly than I verily write now’ (AL, i, 661–2): characteristically the language produced is so vitally tuned into its own moment as to imitate the latter’s inherent instability. In the opening verse paragraph, the repeated adverb ‘still’ is the key to this dynamic. Twice it signals a past not so much recalled as re-emergent, unbidden, within the present – ‘I have not so far left the coasts of life/ … But still I catch my mother at her post/ Beside the nursery-door’ (AL, i, 10, 15–16); ‘Still I sit and feel/ My father’s slow hand, when she had left us both,/ Stroke out my childish curls across his knee’ (AL, i, 19–21).



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Yet the same word, signifying now the persistence of the past in the present, has thus modulated, within a matter of a few swift lines, from its meaning at line 9, where it pivoted between past youth and future age – ‘I, writing thus, am still what men call young’ (so words here seem to find not just their tempo or stress but their meaning as they go). More, this very first narrative line of the work, even in its quick ongoing movement, thus momentarily registers – in ‘still’ – the passing-ness of the same present it records. (‘The passing away of everything around us would break the hearts of many of us, if we did not know and feel that we are passing too’, BC, iv, 17). Later in Book I (as frequently throughout Aurora Leigh), adverbials are situated as if to summon the past into the present: And I, so young then, was not sullen. Soon I used to get up early, just to sit (AL, i, 680–1) The adverb at line end builds in a tiny space between the run-on lines to mimic, in a dramatic second’s expectation, Aurora’s once youthful renewal of the same. Contrastingly, when of her father she writes: There’s a verse he set In Santa Croce to her memory, – ‘Weep for an infant too young to weep much When death removed this mother’ – stops the mirth Today on women’s faces when they walk With rosy children hanging on their gowns (AL, i, 101–6), – the adverb at the start of a new line (‘Today’), transforms an apparently casual simple present tense (‘There’s’) to a vitally responsive present time. The abrupt mid-line ‘stop’ which half anticipates this swift temporal shift is also movingly embodied and fulfilled within a suddenly enlarged world and narrative. As in Shakespeare’s verse, while the pulsing current or throughline of iambic pentameter pulses forward in time, it can be stopped, sent back on itself, opened up, cut off or left hanging, to become saturated with the dense variousness of the ‘living’ present which it

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both moves in and relates. The present, as much as poetry itself, is at once the subject and the medium of this poem. ‘Pauses Frequent to Brokenness’ ‘Is it not true that the blank verse construction wants harmony and variety’, Barrett Browning wrote to Horne of a contemporary drama, ‘from the imperfect management of the pauses’? (BC, v, 24). In a dramatic work of Horne’s own, she admired ‘that music of broken cadences’ describing it as ‘quite Shakespearean’ (BC, iv, 207). Significantly, in notes on a Browning poem in process (‘The Flight of the Duchess’), she preserves the mid-line punctuation (‘Was it singing, was it saying’) – having considered whether to ‘amend by an intermediate “or” ’ – in order not to ‘disturb the listening pause’ (BC, xi, 4). One explicit clue that the same subtle feature mattered to the poet in Aurora Leigh occurs at the opening of Book IX, where Lady Waldemar writes to her ‘I read/ Your book, Aurora, for an hour that day:/ I kept its pauses, marked its emphasis’ (AL, ix, 50–52). Aurora Leigh as a whole shows Barrett Browning particularly in tune with one key defining feature of Shakespeare’s mature verse art from Hamlet onwards (see p. 105, below), the mid-line pause. Despite the apparent miscellaneousness of the line sequences of Shakespeare’s later verse, they adhere broadly to three basic patterns: the sentence runs from mid-line to mid-line; from mid-line to full line; from full line to mid-line. ‘The mid-line pauses temporarily halt the flow, but the ubiquitous enjambment starts it going again and the principal impression of the verse … is of a sequence of lines more disposed to interior than to final pauses’ (Wright 1991, 218). Yet the pause is not so much hesitant in relation to the horizontal surface movement of the verse line, but ‘interior’ in its direction. The caesura is not a switch between one thought and the next, but ‘a location for thinking: for an invisible process of coming to terms with the world, for slight shifts in attitude and orientation … a mind discovered at the edge of volition’ (Palfrey and Stern 2007, 386). Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not

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That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused. Now whether it be Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on th’event – A thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward – I do not know Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do, Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means To do’t. (IV, iv, 36–46)15 Hamlet’s mid-line junctures seem almost to recreate themselves as his ‘words, words, words’ (II.ii.189) do: for those very words, arising from within, seem, once spoken, to arrest and rebuke, as if in external judgement of his living ‘yet’ to say ‘this thing’s to do’ – ‘unused’, ‘coward’, ‘do’t’ – like evasion’s Nemesis. The rhythmic recovery (at line 41) is all the more apparent because the ongoing verse pattern which takes up after the pause and completes the line, seems to resolve itself in place of, and at odds with, any possibility of resolution at the level of doing or thinking – ‘I do not know’. The mid-line pause has related and especial resonance in that favourite scene of Barrett Browning’s from Twelfth Night (contemporaneous with Hamlet): Viola: Duke: Viola:

But if she cannot love you sir. I cannot be so answer’d. Sooth, but you must. Say that some lady, as perhaps there is, Hath for your love as great a pang of heart As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her. You tell her so. Must she not then be answered? (II, iv, 86–91)

‘Pang’ is not a word but an event, silently renewed, by her own words, at each pause. Not Viola’s words only, but the spaces between them, create her own profounder self, behind the visible person and story here, painting in a deeper sense of Viola as character, with every syllable spoken, before our very eyes. The very sense

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in a Shakespeare play that ‘speaking comes from living’ has to do with the silent animation of such gaps and spaces in the speaking mind, filled as they are with ‘rival lives and possibilities, virtual presences, with associations or expectations intuitively supplied by the auditors to fill out the necessarily partly unarticulated mind of the speaker’ (Palfrey and Stern 2007, 387–8). These micro-pauses are thus the actor’s opportunity, not merely for interpretive stage action but for the authentic shaping of character and meaning in performance (Barton 1984, 155–6). Barrett Browning’s very dissatisfaction with stage performance seems to be connected with her sense of drama’s more subtle possibilities. The modern stage, Aurora posits, ‘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 its rhythmic sounds. (AL, v, 340–3) Barrett Barrett found in these ‘Shakespearean’ pauses the key to enriching the present without sacrificing its ‘living’ motion and peremptory urgency and, in her own most dramatic work, cultivated the power of those internal spaces which she had first discovered in the writing of Sonnets from the Portuguese. One single example from the manuscript will demonstrate the degree to which, in Aurora Leigh, the poet appreciated, and manoeuvred for, the Shakespearean inward turn of the mid-line pause. Lines 6–8 of passage B (above p. 89) – ‘And turning outward with a sudden wrench/ The inmost – Artists feel the less/ Because they say?’ – were revised for publication thus: 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. (AL, v, 370–3) The revision, both rhythmically and semantically, correctively focuses the energy of the lines less on the transitional inward/



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outward wrench and more, or equally now – in that newly worked mid-line gap – on the ‘inmost’ reservoir of creative life. In a passage in which a ‘power’ seems amassing in the white space between and within the lines – as real as any substance, yet hardly able to establish itself except in the interstices of the very external shapes which seek to transfix it – that minute pause is made, through the revision, the most rich and expressive climax. Yet, from the very outset of Aurora Leigh, we see Barrett Browning challenging the contours of line and life to make room for these internal spaces, even while she exaggerates the capacity of the mid-line pause to give sudden access to something merely momentary rather than ‘of moment’. In the passage quoted above from Book I, for example (see p. 87), the caesura repeatedly registers, at mid-line, what are in fact final, mortal, terminal endings (italicized below). My life Was a spark snatched up from a failing lamp Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail … The mother’s rapture slew her. If her kiss … And reconciled and fraternised my soul With the new order. As it was, indeed, In each instance here, an ending and a ‘new’ beginning pivot at mid-line and mid-foot. So, in a related pattern, verse paragraphs often begin with a mid-line ending: ‘And thus beloved, she died. I’ve heard it said’ is the opening of verse paragraph five, for example (AL, I, 92). A similar pattern is observable in relation to the death of the father, where lineation effectively makes for three fleeting endings in one sudden death: I was just thirteen, Still growing like the plants from unseen roots In tongue-tied Springs, – and suddenly awoke To full life and life’s needs and agonies With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside A stone-dead father. (1) Life, struck sharp on death,(2) Makes awful lightning. (3) His last word was, ‘Love –’. (AL, i, 205–211)

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The succeeding verse paragraph begins: ‘There, ended childhood. What succeeded next’ (AL, i, 215). Each minute pause is folded back into the fluent verse line almost as soon as it is registered as if under the pressure of ongoing time, and the law of metrical ‘succession’. Yet always within this swift forward motion, and superadded to the existing tension between sentence and metrical arrangement at the mid-line pause, is the frequent contrariwise pull of endings and beginnings fluidly poised within it. It is why even the most summary narrative passages seem neither finished nor complete, but alive with movement and possibility. Moreover, cumulatively, the temporal through-line carries with it (apparently lightly) these unpurged endings and their unexpunged emotional content, until they emerge intermittently into language and consciousness: I felt a mother-want about the world, And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb Left out at night in shutting up the fold – As restless as a nest-deserted bird Grown chill through something being away, though what It knows not. I, Aurora Leigh, was born To make my father sadder, and myself Not overjoyous, truly. (AL, i, 40–7) The amorphous ‘something’ that is lacked is provisionally shaped out of the pauses here – at mid-line (‘away’), at line-end (‘what’) and at mid-pause again (‘It knows not’) – as an inferential presence without settled form, until the ‘mother-want’ finds the home that it cannot find in language in the embodied substance of the father’s sadness. Even in thus registering an absence, something missed, a not-having or non-event, the poem bristles with a life-energy which is continually in search of expression or incarnation, language or materiality. In Book II, the poem effectively dramatizes the process by which a ‘something’ that is unfulfilled in word or event, will force its way into gaps, making room for its own existence. Having related the dialogue in which she rejects Romney’s offer of marriage, Aurora continues:



Aurora Leigh 103 I retain The very last word which I said that day, As you the creaking of the door, years past, Which let upon you such disabling news You ever after have been graver. He, His eyes, the motions in his silent mouth, Were fiery points on which my words were caught, Transfixed forever in my memory For his sake, not their own. And yet I know I did not love him [. .] nor he me [. .] that’s sure [. .] And what I said is unrepented of, As truth is always. (AL, ii, 497–508)

As often in this work, the act of writing proves to be not a record of event so much as a form of recreative memory – words, eyes, mouth are vitally here and now, not merely a ‘transfixed’ mental imprint. That is why in this verse paragraph, ‘memory’ turns (strictly, as in a sonnet, and wonderfully) on the very word (the quickness eased by the latter’s feminine line ending), from its recollective function (‘I retain’) to a new one of transformative present knowledge – ‘For his sake, not their own’. The mid-line break transmits, as much as marks, the sudden drawing back of an inward shaft which ‘her very last word’ to Romney had seemed finally to close up. Like those other minute mid-line movements – the grave infinitude of ‘ever after’, and near-transcendence of ‘for ever’ (which is tenderly picked up in ‘for his sake’) – the verse is thus mobilely making space for the realization of a deeper ‘rival’ sense of being, aslant and athwart the rapid rush of the verse, and the shallower, older forms of knowledge that it brings: ‘And yet I know’. The deliberately signalled elliptical pauses which dominate the subsequent line are a sign of the difficulty of recovering the through-line of her life. In the gaps, what is missed obstinately seeks a fuller realization, silently nurturing a cancelled future that is still promised, paradoxically, by the force of present memory: If he had loved, Ay, loved me, with that retributive face, [. .]

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‘If’, ‘might have been’, ‘perhaps’: as with Viola, these possibilities and potentialities are continually created and deposited in amidst the social reality to which the verse (as we shall see towards the close of this chapter) is always, nonetheless, committedly contracted. More, these fugitive happenings have to be registered in the ongoing rhythm of the verse, as they occur, since they cannot, it transpires, be fully realized or fulfilled at the level of event. When in Book VIII, Romney declares his love for Aurora now as woman poet, and thus recalls, affirms and amends Aurora’s own ‘last words’ from Book II (‘I’, ‘a woman’, ‘love my art’, 492–5), closure itself now feels like something missed: ‘I’m thinking,’ I resumed, ‘’tis somewhat sad, That if I had known, that morning in the dew, My cousin Romney would have said such words On such a night at close of many years, In speaking of a future book of mine, It would have pleased me better as a hope, Than as an actual grace it can at all: That’s sad, I’m thinking’. (AL, viii, 306–13) The pause – those little surplus spaces in Barrett Browning’s work – are never truly extra. Rather, they open onto an in-between dimension where the future itself – the recovered rhythmic motion of the ‘broken’ line and its ongoing forward drive – is always propelled and created. They are the place of the ‘better hope’ which has more functional as well as imaginative reality, even in its necessarily provisional status, than the ‘actual’ life in which it also lives.



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Aurora and Hamlet16 Shakespeare’s first break with the pattern of line and sentence congruence which characterized the blank verse of his early work, happened in creation of the hero for whom incongruence in relation to social norms was the only possible authentic option. The ‘antic disposition’ (I, v, 173) which part signals, part produces, but is always symptomatic of Hamlet’s radical disjuncture from his world and situation, finds its verse equivalent in an increasing rift between line and sentence, the beginnings of their failure to begin and end together, or of the latter to acknowledge the former’s metrical authority. In Aurora Leigh, it is Romney Leigh who, in relation to his ‘sudden madness … to make earth over again’ (iii, 119–20), through his socialist mission and especially by marriage to Marian Erle, is explicitly cast as the recalcitrant hero: … he, Prince Hamlet, weds a pretty maid … By symbol, to instruct us formally To fill the ditches up ‘twixt class and class, And live together in phalansteries. What then? he’s mad, our Hamlet! clap his play, And bind him. (AL, iv, 752–7) More, Hamlet’s achieved graveyard wisdom in Act V, helps provide the sombre language for Romney’s reasoning in respect of the marriage: ‘Dear Marian, of one clay God made us all…[we] come back to it at last,/ The first grave-digger proves it with a spade/ And pats all even’ (AL, iv, 109–16); and Romney’s discourse on the ‘fetid’ world ‘we’re come to late’ (ii, 263–7) is reminiscent of Hamlet’s disgust at what is ‘rank and gross’ and ‘stale, flat and unprofitable’ in ‘the uses of this world’ (I, ii, 133–4). Yet, such examples demonstrate how Romney’s language and beliefs – ‘diagrams’ as Aurora elsewhere calls them (iii, 744) – inhabit pre-conceived templates all too readily to resemble the intelligent originality and extempore non-conformity of a Hamlet or an Aurora. Barrett Browning’s own favourite words from Hamlet17 – the Shakespeare play from which she quoted more often than any

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other in her correspondence – were those of the hero to Horatio when the latter wonders at the strangeness of the Ghost: ‘And therefore as a stranger give it welcome./ There are more things in heaven and earth …/ Than are dreamt of in our philosophy’ (I, v, 167–9).18 Aurora’s response to Romney’s exhortation – though in a language thoroughly and originally her own – is a spirited renewal of Hamlet’s impatience with the limitation of tidy formal knowledge. ‘The heavens and earth have set me’ she says, to an artist’s work, as serious and necessary as any economist’s or social philosopher’s: [to] keep up open roads Betwixt the seen and unseen, – bursting through The best of your conventions with his best, … to prove what lies beyond Both speech and imagination. (AL, ii, 456–73) Though Romney accuses Aurora’s commitment to poetry of being a ‘womanly’ evasion of the ‘agonising present’ (AL, ii, 305), the ‘formal universals’ (AL, iii, 747) of his socialism are altogether safer than Aurora’s more radical and risky experiment of rejecting the role Romney offers her of man’s ‘complement’ in order to live her ‘woman’s soul’ ‘straight out, vocally, in books’ (AL, ii, 1183). Yet, what deeply connects Hamlet and Aurora is that their disobedience in respect of social (and metrical) constraints is not rebellion but an improvised response or quasi-solution to their involuntary situation as ‘strangers’ in their respective worlds. In Hamlet’s case, those solutions more often than not intensify his alienation. Even the ‘inky cloak’ of mourning by which Hamlet defiantly sets himself apart from Claudius’s coercive authority on his first appearance in the play is thence denigrated by its wearer as too ‘customary’ a suit of woe to ‘denote me truly’ (I, ii, 76–86). Hamlet’s very challenge to inauthentic social accord still produces dishonesty secondarily since every available ‘form, mood, shape’ (I, ii, 82) is necessarily a part of the contagion. ‘O that this too, too solid flesh would melt’ (I, ii, 129) is not a death wish so much as a self-defeating recognition that only being part of the corruption could stop his



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being conscious of it, but that very consciousness prevents such ‘dissolving’ identification. More, it has no social form or language in which to speak itself (‘But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue’ I, ii, 159) and thus has nowhere else in all honesty to go except into the interior language of soliloquy. In her own first appearance (in the opening paragraph of the work – virtually an epigraph) Aurora announces that here too language is put to private service, in opposition to its habituated social use. Of writing many books there is no end; And I who have written much in prose and verse For others’ uses, will write now for mine, – Will write my story for my better self As when you paint your portrait for a friend, Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it Long after he has ceased to love you, just To hold together what he was and is. (AL, i, 1–8) Where Sonnets from the Portuguese, I argued in Chapter 2, was instrumental in mediating the passage from old self to new, ‘writing’ in this instance is a means to locate as well as sustain an already existing ‘better’ or (in Hamlet’s terms), truer self, which is without secure place or purchase in the world in which (even dependently) it operates. What is at issue is not just the dislocation between an authentic inner self and a false social self: for the mission here is to ‘hold together’ past and present incarnations of self which, without the intermediary of the writing self, do not cohere. Writing is a medium at once for inhabiting and for making sense of a self which, in the course of the work, develops in amorphous opposition to dominant types and rules, and which is in need of a dimension in which personally honest thinking can reside and survive. This opening, moreover, implicitly announces how the project runs athwart regular forms by setting metrically the pattern for a work which will, as we have seen, impose its own order upon the line, and freely and flexibly keep its own beat, in a highly individual way. ‘Just’ stretches metrical regularity to the extent that

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its full recovery in the subsequent line makes ‘holding together’ seem an achievement indeed, amid this testing of settled formal boundaries. Aurora Leigh is indeed, at one level, an extended ‘soliloquy’, not solipsistically as Virginia Woolf suggested (Woolf, 212), but insofar as it represents a form of thinking which, like Hamlet’s, does not square with conventional or prior models. Aurora does not fit the available categories of a woman’s vocation and purpose – ‘mistress’, ‘wife’, ‘helpmeet’, ‘sister of charity’ – any more than Hamlet fits those of avenging hero or ideal warrior. As with Hamlet’s ‘nightly colour’ (I, ii, 68) of woe, Aurora is most distrustful of customary forms where she is most aware she might ‘fill’ them too comfortably. Under the misapprehension, in Book VII, that Romney has married Lady Waldemar, Aurora wishes, one moment, that she ‘had been a woman, such/ As God made women, to save men by love’ (184–5) and, reactively, in the next moment, doublethinks her wish: ‘That’s womanly, past doubt … / To fill the chair up of my cousin’s wife,/ And save him from a devil’s company!’ (218–21). Like Hamlet, too, Aurora embodies a consciousness brimful of thoughts urgently demanding, by consequence of their very ‘strange’ originality, expression in language. ‘Alas, I still see something to be done,/ And what I do, falls short of what I see,/ Though I waste myself on doing’ (v, 344–6). Yet, as with Hamlet, that ‘something’19 has no language, form or medium other than that which materializes in pursuit of it. Ideas themselves are alive in Aurora Leigh, as vital as any character, organically taking their own shape in time, as amorphously as Hamlet’s thinking grows itself, against the grain, as it goes along. These are ‘brave new thoughts’ (see above, p. 2) in every sense, at every moment, as fresh as the dramatic instance in which they originate, and fitting into nothing except themselves. If Hamlet dramatizes the beginning of individualism, the prototypical drama of a consciousness separated from its social and divine host – ‘We hardly can think about ourselves as separate selves without thinking about Hamlet’ (Bloom, 405) – Aurora Leigh, analogously, seems to generate not just a new female poetics, but a new species, taking us to the dramatic beginnings of female individualism itself.



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For example. We have seen already how in this poem, ideas happen in time; as in Shakespearean drama, thoughts are events of the moment and of the body as much as they are events of mind. Thus, when, for instance, Aurora thinks of her love poetry admired ‘far off’ by lovers together while she sits alone and unloved, the mind’s recognition of its own potential thus to exist in transcendent separateness from the body is, at this moment, brilliantly, still a thought which ‘lives’ inside a lonely body and is as physically vital an event as Lady Macbeth’s guilt or Ophelia’s madness: 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 grow moist. (AL, v, 441–7) Yet, by the same token, an idea that at one moment might seem to end itself in regret (‘what I do, falls short of what I see’), re-emerges, after two books of being apparently lost to time’s process, as a triumphant acceptance of life’s victory over art – ‘Art itself,/ We’ve called the larger life, must feel the soul/ Live past it’ (AL, vii, 889–91). Barrett Browning’s generously open relation to idea (‘my very first emotion will overturn my firmest philosophy’ BC, iii, 217) both is, and is not, as casually random as Hippolyte Taine’s warmly admiring description of Aurora Leigh suggests: ‘a system of notation … created from instant to instant, out of anything and everything’.20 For in this continual, brave, bold testing of what gets thought as it goes along, such that even her leading ideas undergo revision in time, Barrett Browning is using time as a peremptory ruler and creative discipline. Like Shakespeare in character, she puts the urgency of having something to say which speaks out of the situation, and must be said now or lost for ever with the passing of the moment, above concern for tidy philosophical coherence. As with Shakespeare, too, words seem to take off from words (‘far off,/ Too far’), ideas from ideas, as part of the accepted mental spillage of time’s going on and thought’s finding itself in the unplanned

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pursuit of itself within time. Every thought so far considered in this chapter seems to ‘happen’ like that:    never felt the less Because he sings it.   I, Aurora Leigh, was born To make my father sadder, and myself Not overjoyous, truly.    less known and less left alone, Perhaps a better woman after all, in life, and so in art Which still is life. The short, urgent, pithy line, ‘as if strong feeling has spilled over the line in the form of a leftover phrase’ is what in Shakespeare gives the ‘effect of impassioned speech bursting out of its social (that is, its metrical) constraints’ (Wright 1991, 138). In the final example above, the hanging half-line (which closes the verse paragraph) is the extra twist of a thought that could have stopped – at ‘art’: instead, as if in involuntary illustration of what artistic ‘trust’ means here, the thought is allowed to ‘live past itself’, under the vital momentum of the narrator’s embodiment in time. The poet wrote to Browning of ‘that gathering of light on light upon particular points, as you go (in composition) step by step, till you get intimately near to things, and see them in a fullness and clearness, and an intense trust in the truth of them which you have not in any sunshine of noon (called real) but which you have then’ (BC, x, 266). The very aesthetic of the present which Barrett Browning famously announces in Book V of Aurora Leigh – the ‘sole work’ of the poet ‘is to represent the age,/ … this live, throbbing age/ … This is living art,/ Which thus presents and thus records true life’ (AL, x, 202, 221–2) – is thus found or realized, as much as aimed for, since it is the dynamic foundation of her creative procedure before it is the keystone of her poetics.



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Aurora Leigh as a ‘Problem Play’ Aurora’s language resembles a Hamlet soliloquy in this sense too: that whatever inward thinking may decide or profess, it has still to sustain itself (or not) within a wider dramatic field which contains alternative mindsets (Laertes, Fortinbras; Lady Waldemar, Lord Carrington). Though more limited in their vision, these minds are nonetheless challenging for their very incompatibility with the protagonist’s and for their incapacity to take the measure of what exceeds them. Embodied ideas are subject not only to the movement of the body in time, but to the opposing power of other incarnate world-views. And, of course, these inveterate thinkers have that thought too. Hamlet – ‘Examples growth as earth exhort me’ (IV, iv, 46); Aurora – We shape a figure of our fantasy, Call nothing something, and run after it And lose it, lose ourselves too in the search Till clash against us comes a somebody (AL, vi, 285–8) But almost immediately this ‘clash’ becomes not just a thought but a dramatic event when Aurora discovers the ‘castaway’ (AL, vi, 347), Marian Erle, with child. Aurora chides Marian ‘softly’ with being ‘complaisant’, in her engrossing love for her child, to ‘a wrong’ she did when she left ‘The pure place and the noble heart, to take/ The hand of a seducer’ (AL, vi, 742–7). But, in a sudden switch of moral authority, the complacency proves to be Aurora’s. Marian – the victim of ‘man’s violence/ Not man’s seduction’ (AL, vi, 1126–7) – returns: I was not ever as you say, seduced, But simply, murdered… . I’m dead, I say, And if, to save the child from death as well, The mother in me has survived the rest, Why, that’s God’s miracle you must not tax, I’m not less dead for that: I’m nothing more But just a mother. (AL, vi, 770–71, 819–24)

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Aurora, the intrepid individualist, who has assiduously resisted or broken through formulaic convention or category, now finds herself inside one of them. For her Christian absolutes, withal their kindness, integrity and charity, are here, like Romney’s socialist ones, too programmatic to admit a truly Christ-like response to Marian’s fallen situation. Thus it is Marian who converts Aurora’s prescriptively religious orientation in relation to the child (‘Must sin have compensations, was my thought,/ As if it were a holy thing like grief?’ (AL, vi, 613–14) into a deeply religious one (‘God’s miracle’), as a sorrowing outcome (like the ‘first’ woman in transgression and grief) of her very ‘sin’. Her new ascendant authority is a quality of her language as much as of her belief. ‘Nothing more/ But just a mother’ recalls Cleopatra’s words on the death of Antony, ‘No more but e’en a woman’ (IV, xvi, 75): a woman made wretchedly smaller grows into a human stature which seems, in an instant, to outgrow the very world of social and political forms which, even thus, have defeated her. Aurora’s own position here – in finding the moral role and authority she herself represents, now occupied by another – seems, by contrast, closer to that of the austere Isabella in Measure for Measure.21 I invoke the comparison with character here in order to use the play itself as a template for showing how, in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning strategically exploited the dramatic potential to relativize absolute positions which we saw emerging in A Drama of Exile. The extract below, I suggest, is an image in miniature of how both Shakespeare’s play and Aurora Leigh operate conceptually. While ideas are maximally extended forwards in time, their limits and reach are also stretched and tested laterally through different human incarnations. Having pleaded with Angelo for her brother Claudio’s life, Isabella comes to visit Claudio in prison knowing that only the sacrifice of her chastity can save him. At first their moral positions in relation to Angelo’s treachery are mutual and secure: Isabella: . . . Dost thou think, Claudio: If I would yield him my virginity, Thou might’st be freed! Claudio: O heavens, it cannot be! (III.i.95–7)

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‘O, were it but my life’, Isabella proceeds, ‘I’d throw it down for your deliverance/ As frankly as a pin’ (III, I, 103–5). But their ethical perspectives begin to separate here, precisely because it is not her life that she must sacrifice, but Claudio’s. Thus, where Isabella’s absolutes remain intact – ‘Be, ready, Claudio, for your death tomorrow’ (III, i, 106) – Claudio’s are immediately relativized, under the simple pressure of the life-threatening situation – ‘Sure it is no sin,/ Or of the deadly seven it is the least’: Claudio: Isabella: Claudio: Isabella: Claudio:

O Isabel! What says my brother? Death is a fearful thing. And shamed life a hateful. Ay, but to die, and go we know not where . . . (III, i, 109–118)

When Claudio enters a mindset closer to Hamlet’s than to one of comic folly, he can no more understand Isabella’s position than Hamlet could inhabit Ophelia’s. So brother and sister, now within a single scene, oppose one another as if they belong to different constellations: Claudio:

Isabella:

Sweet sister, let me live. What sin you do to save a brother’s life, Nature dispenses with the deed so far That it becomes a virtue. O, you beast! O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch, . . . Die, perish! Might but my bending down Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed. I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death, No word to save thee. (III, i, 134–148)

Isabella’s founding moral position has not itself shifted, only become stringently reinforced by over-correction of Claudio’s relinquishing of rule. Yet, in the name of integrity, principle and her own salvation, Isabella now finds herself inhabiting the same ethical constellation as ‘The precise Angelo’ (III, i, 92). She who

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had gone to plead, against the latter’s strictness, for mercy to her brother – ‘Yet show some pity’ (II, ii, 101) – now finds herself pitilessly condemning her brother with the same correctness. In Aurora Leigh, the principal characters likewise behave as if they were mobile thoughts within a single super-mind. This strategy comes dynamically into its own, significantly, following the definitive statement of Aurora’s poetic mission in Book V, as though the remainder of the work were a testing-ground for trialing the robustness and durability of Aurora’s ideas and formulations. If Shakespeare is asking in Measure for Measure, what do mercy and justice humanly mean? – can moral absolutes ever survive, unsullied, their embodiment in individualized situation? – then Aurora Leigh applies analogous measures to its own originating ideals. Barrett Browning translates her central artistic tenets, that is to say, into a dramatic ‘problem’, in a way comparable, I am suggesting, to Shakespeare’s turning the founding articles of Christian religion into the contested subject of his problem play. For example, when in Book VIII, Romney comes to Italy, to help provide for Marian and her child, both he and Aurora have been chastened by experience to modify the apparently starkly conflicting beliefs on the value of artistic and political endeavour which they fiercely guarded in Book II. But their positions do not so much begin to dovetail as become exchanged with one another. Aurora finds she has internalized and must take seriously Romney’s scorn for art as a ‘facile’ system for bringing ‘the uneven world back to its round … beautiful and whole’ (AL, ii, 150, 1219–1226): ‘Books succeed,/ And lives fail. Do I feel it so, at last?’ (704–5) Aurora asks herself in Book VII. While Romney, for his part (in Book VIII), has found himself involuntarily reconstituted from within via the smite of Aurora’s antagonistic beliefs. He ‘failed indeed’ for ‘hearing through the rents/ Of obstinate purpose, still those words of yours’ (AL, viii, 454–5): … ‘It takes a soul To move a body – it takes a high-souled man, To move the masses, even to a cleaner sty: It takes the ideal, to blow an inch inside

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The dust of the actual: and your Fouriers failed, Because not poets enough to understand That life develops from within.’ (AL, viii, 430–6) Yet now, as if by reflex, Aurora takes up Romney’s former position by way of correction of her own world view, now in him: life, you’ve granted me, Develops from within. But the innermost Of the inmost, most interior of the interne, God claims his own … the piercingest verse, Prest in by the subtlest poet, still must keep As much upon the outside of a man As the very bowl in which he dips his beard. (AL, viii, 558–64) And when Romney accepts her corrective emphasis thus: I failed: I throw the remedy back on God, And sit down here beside you, in good hope, (AL, viii, 701–2), Aurora cautions: And yet take heed … lest we lean Too dangerously on the other side, And so fail twice… . If [you] strained too wide, It was not to take honour but to give help; The gesture was heroic. (AL, viii, 703–5, 785–7) Likewise when she claims, like him, to ‘have slipped the ends of life’ (AL, viii, 468) – ‘I/ Have failed too’ (AL, viii, 470–71) – he gives proof of her poetic success in exactly the terms she herself would use. ‘I’ll have no traffic with the personal thought/ In art’s pure temple’ she had claimed in Book II (61–2). But that ambition is only realized when Romney says: In all your other books I saw but you: … But, in this last book,

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The work thus turns its ideas around inside different incarnations and at different phases of the same embodiment, not in a spirit of restlessness but to guard against the ‘complaisance’ of fixed forms of thinking and in order to keep the poem’s own most definitive beliefs in ever-mobile, connected life. The very project of Aurora Leigh was to demonstrate the vital relatedness of apparently separate modes – ‘showing how the practical and real (so-called) is but the external evolution of the ideal and spiritual – that it is from inner to outer, … whether in life, morals or art’.22 The poem, like Aurora herself, begins with ideals as strict as Isabella’s and, like Isabella’s in relation to Claudio, those priorities do not fundamentally change. For when Aurora concludes in Book VII ‘The end of woman (or of man, I think)/ Is not a book’ (883–4), she is not valuing art less, but proving herself more completely the artist, for whom ‘Without the spiritual, observe,/ The natural’s impossible’, while, . . . in this twofold sphere the twofold man (For still the artist is intensely a man) Holds firmly by the natural, to reach The spiritual beyond it. (AL, vii, 773–80) Here, reprising Romney’s own words from the close of Book IV (‘if Art be in truth the higher life,/ You need the lower life to stand upon’, (AL, iv, 1206–7), Aurora also embodies, uniquely and individually, rather than programmatically, his injunction ‘for Art’s sake, hold your life’ (AL, iv, 1211). An external idea is turned into the dramatic event of human thought in vital recovery and verification of an ideal – the ‘twofold’ life. For the evolution happens not just over the course of the narrative: these ideas, as we have seen, are newly-evolved, ‘fresh-minted for this moment’s use’23 (BC, x, 121), in the feeling present of the thought’s formulation.



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Shakespeare, again, was Barrett Browning’s model of the artist at once ‘most passionate and most rational – of an emotion which casts us into thought, of a reason which leaves us open to emotion!’ (The Book of the Poets, Works, iv, 463). Measure for Measure is almost an exhibition piece in this respect. For just at the point when ideas come to seem more reliable than humans, who continually let down the ideals they mean to represent, an idea – the Christian principle of mercy and forgiveness – is dramatically and redemptively realized in the only way it possibly could be, through flawed and fallen human agency. For pity of Mariana, Isabella pleads for Angelo’s life, though believing Claudio already to be dead. The act is, indeed, as the Duke says ‘against all sense’ (V, I, 431). Even thereby, however, it is a clue to what fundamentally connects Barrett Browning’s dramatic thinking to that of Shakespeare. Barrett Browning prized, as she put it, ‘the livingness in matters of kindness’ (BC, vi, 151). So, too, like Shakespeare, she was committed to creatively re-inventing the ‘livingness’ of ideas before they were accounted, or fixed in, ideology. To conclude that in Measure for Measure, justice and mercy need one another, or that in Aurora Leigh art and life are reciprocally dependent, is not a wrong thought, so much as the wrong mode of thinking – too finished, inert and safely disembodied. In the same way, feminist-political readings of Aurora Leigh, tend to leave out of account the degree to which feminism is a dramatically tested possibility for this poet (‘[Man’s] doubt is, whether we can do the thing/ With decent grace we’ve not yet done at all’, (AL, viii, 831–2), and not a settled orthodoxy, one way or the other.24 ‘No rules of life outside of life’ (AL, ix, 870) was the creative rule for Barrett Browning and Shakespeare equally. Yet, as the foregoing has shown, while, for both thinkers, ideas can only truly live in particularized incarnation, they are never in themselves, or in their dramatic formulation, simply or essentially personal. For Aurora Leigh itself is neither finally, nor from the first, an individualist work and the evidence once again lies in its basic verse form. We have already seen Barrett Browning’s Shakespearean use of short lines (see p. 110, above) and the poet’s habit throughout Aurora Leigh of beginning and ending verse paragraphs with short rather than full verse lines (see above, p. 92

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and p. 103) was itself distinctive in the nineteenth century where the block verse paragraph remained the norm.25 ‘My own best poets, am I one with you?’ or is the music mine, As a man’s voice or breath is called his own, Inbreathed by the Life-breather. There’s a doubt For cloudy seasons! But the sun was high When first I felt my pulses set themselves For concord. (AL, i, 881, 892–7) The fluent momentum and seamless continuity of this poem owes much to there being no time to sound depths or mark endings (which happen midline and mid-stream instead as we have seen, p. 101 above) before the new verse paragraph is on its way, picking up and carrying forward the verse line which concluded its predecessor. What Aurora Leigh also and uniquely exploits to the full, however, is the short line which is metrically completed by another speaker’s words – a distinctively Shakespearean expressive tool as it came to be used with settled frequency from his problem plays onwards.26 So for example in the scene discussed already from Measure for Measure, the metrical linkage between brother and sister reminds of their wider social (and biological) accord even as their words see the pair beginning to fall apart: Isabella: Claudio: Isabella: Claudio: Isabella:

Claudio:

Tomorrow you set on. Is there no remedy? None, but such a remedy as, to save a head, To cleave a heart in twain. But is there any? Yes, brother, you may live. There is a devilish mercy in the judge, If you’ll implore it, that will free your life, But fetter you till death. Perpetual durance? (III, i, 58–65)

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‘But in what nature?’ (III, i, 68) is Claudio’s next completing half-line. The fact that every completion is also a question highlights how the Shakespearean shared line operates more generally, in making each ending also a beginning – a new question or thought, and always a new speaker. So long as one line is impelled by, or drawn after, another in this way, there can be no settlement or finish, even while each freshly bred and often antagonistic thought affirms the bounded togetherness of human as well as metrical ties. From the very outset of their first conversation in Book II (in manuscript), Aurora’s and Romney’s verse lines are shared in this distinctively Shakespearean sense: ‘My book You found it’ ‘In the hollow by the stream [That beech leans down into – of which you said The Oread in it has a Naiad’s heart]27 And pines for waters.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Rather you My cousin I since have seen you not too much A witch poet scholar and the rest To be a woman also.’ Aurora answers ‘gravely’: ‘Poets needs must be A man or a woman – more’s the pity.’ ‘Ah, But men, and still less women, happily, Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath, Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles The best of the Auroras.’ ‘What’s the use Of keeping well and white and being the best Of useless things I ask you.’ (AL/MS, 36–7; see AL, ii, 80–99)

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‘I ask you’, like the iambic rhythm it fulfils, belongs to conventional social discourse at one level, while at another, it bespeaks a more profound social orientation, anterior to rules and norms, which emerges out of the pattern of life itself. It is that life pattern which Shakespeare’s dramatic verse profoundly honours and, in thus reproducing her own version, Browning re-inscribes the original’s deep ethic of mutual dependence and reciprocal responsibility. ‘The shared line links two voices’, just as ‘characters share the stage, audience and actors share the theatre, play and reality share the world… . The intensity of [Shakespeare’s] system of internal obligations mirrors the intensity of relations within and between people and between people and the divine order.’28 The achieved religious understanding of Aurora Leigh – ‘Art is much/ But love is more’ (AL, ix, 656) – is written into the dramatic form of the work from its inception. More, the trusting belief in a fundamentally shared world-order (witnessed by the emergence of this verse pattern so early and instinctually in the manuscript) explains why Barrett Browning did not, and could not perhaps, have composed a ‘monodram’ (see above, p. 84) of the kind Robert Browning pioneered. For the consequence in Aurora Leigh of its particularly Shakespearean ‘unity’ (busy, crowded, social) is that no thought, person, idea, book or event can exist in relative isolation without immediately calling into play counterparts, opposites, complements, redefinitions or reformulations which – like Aurora’s audacious ‘more’s the pity’, ‘what’s the use of … being the best/ Of useless things’ – new-make the world in an instant. The Shakespearean character of Barrett Browning’s verse is stamped more than anything else, perhaps, by its capacity thus to create, carry and shed ‘anything and everything’ which ‘still is life’. Yet in taking Shakespeare’s verse as the creative medium for this teeming largesse of social vision, Barrett Browning was simply, as always, going back to source. For Shakespeare’s writings had to a large degree shaped the very worldview which, in Aurora Leigh, they helped her formally to recreate. ‘I was as a man dying who had not read Shakespeare’, she wrote to Browning (BC, x, 133) of her hitherto secluded existence, and particularly of the period following the death of her brother. The terms Barrett Browning



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used to express impoverishment paradoxically affirm that poor life’s compensatory enrichments. For at her very loneliest, it was not only Shakespeare’s language and forms, but his dramatic speaking rhythms which came most naturally to her. The volta of ‘Irreparableness’ (see above, p. 41–42) – ‘What do you say,/ Sweet counsellors, dear friends? that I should go/ Back straightway to the fields, and gather more?’ (8–10) – recalls Ophelia’s tones almost as much as the concluding poem of Sonnets from the Portuguese,29 and ‘speaking to’ was the poet’s métier throughout her grief: ‘I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless … Deep-hearted man, express/ Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death’ (‘Grief’, 1, 8–9).30 Nineteenthcentury England’s most famously secluded poet was also, always, its most incorrigibly social.31 The literary language she called ‘Shakespeare’ and prized above all others was the very currency of human transaction, social exchange and all ‘living’ forms of love. The self-poised God may dwell alone   With inward glorying, But God’s chief angel waiteth for   A brother’s voice, to sing. (‘The Poet’s Vow’, 270–4)

Notes  1. The comment refers to Robert Browning’s Luria and A Soul’s Tragedy.  2. For a study of Aurora Leigh as a dramatic monologue, see Kristian Smidt (1957) ‘Point of View in Victorian Poetry’, English Studies 38: 1–12. Stone also notices the dramatic perspective of Aurora Leigh and her view of Aurora as a ‘sagein-formation whose wisdom is in process of revision and often contradicted by her own actions’ accords with my reading of the relation of character and idea, see p. 109. Where for Stone the perspective is allied to a specifically novelistic narrative method, however, I argue in the Conclusion that Barrett Browning’s dramatic-poetic mode is radically separate from that of the Victorian novel.

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 3. See Charles Hamilton Aidé (1857) Edinburgh Weekly Review 1 (2 February), 7–9; New Quarterly Review and Digest of Current Literature, 6 (January), 33–35; Ėmile Montégut (1857) Révue des deux mondes (Paris) 2, no. 8 (15 March), 322–53; John Nichol, Westminster Review 68, no. 134 (October), 399–415; Blake (1986); Friedman (1986); Brown (1997); Gilbert and Gubar (1979), 575–80. See also, Stone (1997), ch. 4 for a full survey of generic attribution, and for a penetrating study of Aurora Leigh as ‘Spasmodic Epic’, see Tucker (2008), 374–86.  4. George Eliot (1857) Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review 67, no. 131 (January), 306–10.  5. For recent relevant work on Victorian metres see Campbell (1999), 48–63; Blair (2006), 63–102; Griffiths (1989), 97–170.  6. Joyce Zonana (1989) ‘The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics’, in Leighton, 1996, 64. See also Taylor (2006), 53–5.  7. Woolf finds the poet too imprisoned and ‘forced’ into ‘generalization and declamation’ by the remorseless ‘monotony’ of the blank verse rhythm (211).  8. At the beginning, therefore, of an era of dramatically increased interest in codifying poetic metre culminating in Saintsbury’s 3-volume history. See Yopie Prins, ‘Victorian Meters’ in Joseph Bristow (ed.) 89–113; Dennis Taylor (1988) ‘Victorian Prosody and Its Backgrounds’ in Hardy’s Metres and Victorian Prosody. Emily Harrington has pointed out that Barrett Browning’s ‘renegade scansion’ ‘epitomizes the “ordered liberty” that Saintsbury praised in Victorian verse’, Literature Compass 4/1 (2007), 336–354, 340.  9. See Reynolds (1996), 330. 10. Of The Seraphim, she wrote during its composition, ‘I tried the blank verse metre once – & it would not do’ (BC, iii, 198). 11. Wellesley College, Boston: see Collections, D49. 12. See Blair (2006), 132–6; Campbell (1999), 42–5; Harrington (2007), 340–1. 13. She intends a poem ‘as completely modern as “Geraldine’s Courtship” … rushing into drawing-rooms and the like’ Barrett Browning writes to Browning in the letter cited above p. 84.



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14. Hayter, for example, judging by a non-dramatic standard, finds the verse full of ‘licences which would pass in dramatic blank verse but are anomalous in an epic’ (Hayter 1962, 57). 15. See Philip Edwards (ed.) (1985). 16. For comparisons of Aurora (and Barrett Browning) with Shakespeare heroines, see Marshall (2006), 471–6 and Lootens (1996), 116–7. For discussion of the importance of Hamlet to writers of the Victorian age more generally, see, for example, Juliet John, ‘Dickens and Hamlet’ in Victorian Shakespeare, ii, 46–60; Novy (1998), 117–127. 17. Also the epigraph to Byron’s Manfred. For the influence of Byron on Aurora Leigh, see BC, ix, 304 (where the poet thinks of writing ‘a Don Juan without the mockery impurity’); Stone (1995), 53, 177; Stone (1987), 15; Works, iii, 10–11. See also Note 26 below. 18. See BC, ii, 167; iii, 147. 19. Hamlet, III, i, 80. 20. Edward Hyams (trans.) (1958), 270. 21. See for example, BC, ii, 4; vii, 230; viii, 199; xi, 269; x, 59, 235; xii, 109, 218, for Barrett Browning’s references to the play. See also Davis (1996), 61–2, to which the following discussion of the play is indebted. 22. See Reynolds (1996), 331. 23. The words are Browning’s to Barrett Browning. 24. Representative are Kaplan (1978), 5–36; Gilbert and Gubar (1979), 575–80; Mermin (1989), 83–224. For an alternative reading see David (1987), 103–13. 25. Though see for example, ‘Tintern Abbey’, and The Prelude, where this feature is not infrequent. 26. See also Manfred and note 17, above. 27. These lines, illegible in manuscript, are from the published version, as is the punctuation throughout the passage, inserted for the sake of clarity. 28. Wright (1991), 258–9. See also Palfrey and Stern (2007), 340–58, 380–9. 29. See: Works, ii, 479; SP, XLIV (‘yet here’s eglantine,/ Here’s ivy! – take them, as I used to do/ Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine’, 10–12), and Hamlet (IV. v. 175–84).

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Sonnet XLIV seems consciously to echo ‘Irreparableness’ as Sonnet XLII (more explicitly) recalls ‘Past and Future’ (see above, p. 37–8). 30. I quote the published version (with revised volta, see above, p. 44). 31. Compare, for example, William Myers reading of the ‘radical disconnectedness’ of Emily Brontë’s poems, ‘grounded in the absolute sufficiency of a mind willing to concentrate on immediate experiences’, offering the ‘reflexiveness of intelligence itself, conscious of its own arbitrary attentiveness’, Chapter 10, ‘Fragments of Consciousness: The Poems of Emily Brontë’ in (1988) The Presence of Persons: Essays on Literature, Science and Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century, Aldershot: Ashgate, 166–7.

Conclusion

For Virginia Woolf, when Barrett Browning ‘poach[ed] upon a novelist’s preserves’ in order to ‘throw down a challenge to the Brontës and Thackerays’ and give poetry a stake in the representation of ‘modern life’, what she produced, in Aurora Leigh, was a novel manquée. ‘Forced by the nature of her [verse] medium, [Barrett Browning] ignores the slighter, the subtler, the more hidden shades of emotion by which a novelist builds up touch by touch a character in prose’ (Woolf, 211). Woolf’s model of the ‘prose writer’s … slow accumulation of careful detail’ (213) is closer to Middlemarch than to Villette or Vanity Fair and George Eliot’s most celebrated work is indeed the best example to demonstrate Aurora Leigh’s distinctiveness in relation to the Victorian novel. Yet the distinction is one of parallel achievement not of relative deficiency. For Barrett Browning was neither trying to write a quasi-novel nor fighting a rearguard action against the genre’s formal dominance. Instead, Aurora Leigh presented a radical alternative to the novel precisely by eschewing the turn inward toward a ‘hidden’ human content, which was Victorian realism’s métier as, indeed, it was Woolf’s own. As Chapter 3 has sought to show, Aurora Leigh offers not a privatized psychology but a dramatic speaking voice; not dialogue and its sub-text, but dramatized conversation. Both present-tense modes exist determinedly and urgently at the embodied interface between ‘outward’ and ‘inmost’, ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, where, through dramatic realisation in individual characters’ language, inward life is made private and public at once, rather than the burden of separated consciousness that it becomes in the Victorian realist novel.1 Paradoxically, for Victorian as for contemporary critics, George Eliot’s own claim to be the nineteenth-century ‘female Shakespeare’2 rests on that aspect of her work which differentiates

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it from Barrett Browning’s: the astounding stamina with which she heard the ‘roar on the other side of silence’ and ‘pierced the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy’ (Middlemarch, 163, 192), as if beating out the ‘fine gold’ of Shakespearean drama in full dilation and expansion of its plenitude of psychological implication.3 Yet the tracing out of these processes was not for its own sake. For George Eliot’s project in Middlemarch was to restore to ‘insignificant’ (Finale, 822) individual life the meaning which it hardly knew it had, the redemptive content of which was hidden even from those in whose lives it resided. What were arguably the two most ‘experimental’ aspects of Middlemarch – the virtuoso use of free indirect discourse and the voice and language we call ‘George Eliot’ – offer the experience of a character’s life as she or he can never quite live it or understand it.4 The novel stood in for what was missing in ‘modern life’, as much as it represented what was there, offering an articulate witness of the importance to the ‘growing good of the world’ (Middlemarch, Finale, 822) even of the apparently failed or wasted individual life. Insofar as the novel’s surrounding density gave a supportive or protective backing for personal matter, need or lack, the strenuously explicit language of Middlemarch is perhaps only the inverse of the protective disguises which we find in the narratorial strategies of Villette, on the one hand (effectively ‘hiding’ the heroine, Lucy Snowe, within her own first-person narrative), and, on the other hand, the ironic masks of Browning’s dramatic monologues. All three formal experiments seem to bespeak a loss of faith in the capacity of the personal voice to exist expressively and meaningfully alone, as though it were too small, thin, and (amidst a collectivizing culture) too disregarded to support its own meanings adequately. By the same token, each of these ground-breaking Victorian forms were a species of indirectness and (albeit earnest) secondariness5 that was entirely alien to Barrett Browning’s practices. ‘I have done my work … not as mere hand and head work, apart from the personal being, – but as the completest expression of that being, to which I could attain’ (Preface to Poems 1844, CW, ii, 570). In a letter to Browning in which she writes of ‘the dramatic’



Conclusion 127

as ‘the highest faculty, the strongest and rarest which exercises itself in Art’ – ‘admit[ting] of shifting a personality & speaking the truth still’ – she wishes nonetheless that ‘after having made your own creatures speak in clear human voices, [you might] speak yourself out of that personality which God made … in the directest & most impressive way, the mask thrown off however moist with the breath’. ‘Better always’ for the reader, she goes on, when he or she ‘sees the lips move’ (BC, xii, 358–9). Barrett Browning’s own dramatically living voice was always unmasked and personal, not a surrogate voice like Browning’s, nor a species voice, like George Eliot’s, nor an occluded one, like Brontë’s first-person narrator. The real challenge to Villette, perhaps, was not Aurora Leigh but the intimately expressive directness of Sonnets from the Portuguese. The language of Lucy’s final confessional cry of love – ‘ “My heart will break!” ’ (Villette, 600) – is wrung from the smothering pressure of the external world, and her adroitly deployed personae within it,6 only at a point of ultimacy, when apparently nothing except expression of personal need (‘What I felt seemed literal heartbreak’, Villette, 600) can save her very life. By contrast, as we saw in Chapter 2, such honest speaking out – straight, bold and true – of a deeply vulnerable interior life, itself half-dead or dying, is Barrett Browning’s starting point in Sonnets. By the same token, Aurora Leigh was not poaching upon the Victorian novel’s territory but stridently – without self-conscious belatedness or defensiveness – taking into that ‘modern’ domain everything that Romantic subjectivism represented, thus incarnating and validating for a new age the ‘the holiness of the Heart’s affection’: ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not’.7 Read the same Shakespeare play forty times, said Keats, and something ‘new’ will forcibly strike you in the renewed instant of reading, as though the present moment of reception were as dramatically filled with possibilities as the instant of creation.8 For so many literary Victorians – George Eliot, Tennyson, Hardy – language was self-consciously posthumous to the life-experience whose meaning it sought to rescue, when it was not – as in Browning, Meredith, Hardy again – ironically distanced from it. For Barrett Browning the meaning was Romantically in the experience, without use or authority after it, without vital

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reality ‘before’. Her literary language originated in the creative present,9 the ‘livingness’ of the dramatic-poetic invention which Shakespeare incarnates, where the speedy ‘seizure’ of quick-passing, fast-breathing life has no time for slow or careful preparation or for second, ironic, or ‘after’ thoughts. One go, one moment, one life. For Woolf, the novelist, the rapid ‘fire’ of Aurora Leigh left it essentially unfinished, at ‘some pre-natal stage’, ‘a masterpiece in embryo’ (Woolf, 208–9). Yet for D. H. Lawrence, the poet, the ‘white quick of nascent creation’ is of the essence of what he called the ‘poetry of the present’. ‘The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end must have that exquisite finality, perfection that belongs to all that is far off’. But, Lawrence goes on, ‘there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand, the immediate present’, ‘instant poetry’ in which ‘there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished’. If, during the early twentieth-century backlash against the Victorian age, Aurora Leigh had been judged, not by the standards of Modernist formalism, but by the writer who prized in Walt Whitman ‘the unrestful poetry … whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit’, the appraisal of Barrett Browning’s entire literary endeavour might have found a new axis and a new language in which to prize its essential achievement: the vibration of ‘the ‘living plasm’, the ‘creative quick’, ‘in the quivering nimble hour of the present’, ‘the urgent, insurgent Now’.10

Notes  1. Adrian Poole is perhaps thinking along these lines – of an inwardness distinct from the that of nineteenth-century realism, when he writes (with reference to Aurora’s decrying of the impoverishment of the Victorian stage, see above, p. 100): ‘The example and verse forms and techniques that could be redeployed to stage new kinds of inwardness or even ideally “the soul itself” – this was how Shakespeare could serve as inspiration’ (Poole 2004, 156).  2. Attributed to Herbert Spencer, see Haight (1955–78), v, 465. For similar Victorian appraisals of George Eliot, see Main (1872), vii and Browning, 142.



Conclusion 129

 3. See Bayne (1883), 525. For an extended discussion of the implications of Bayne’s comparison of drama’s ‘compressed and implicit’ mode with nineteenth-century novelistic discourse, see Philip Davis, ‘Implicit and Explicit Reason: George Eliot and Shakespeare’ in Marshall and Poole (2003), ii, 84–99. See also Marshall (2009), 124–6.  4. For detailed study of George Eliot’s and of nineteenth-century realism’s strategies, see, for example, Miller (2008), 69–104; Miller (2003), 60; Billington and Davis (2011), 24–36.  5. Edward Dowden wrote famously of that ‘second self’ which ‘if not the real George Eliot’, ‘writes her books and lives and speaks through them’, ‘George Eliot’, Contemporary Review, xx (August 1872), 403–22, 403. For further discussion see Billington (2008), 2–3.  6. ‘Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic and cynical; Mr Home, a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet … whilst Monsieur Paul Emanuel … never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature’ (Villette, 375–6).  7. John Keats to J. H. Reynolds, in Gittings (1975), 36–7. For Barrett Browning’s admiration of Keats, as ‘a fine genius, – too finely tuned for the gross dampness of our atmosphere, the instrument breaking with its own music’, see BC, vi, 113.  8. Gittings (1975), 7.  9. ‘We seize from within, we live at every instant, a creation of form … or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition’ (Bergson, 239, 302). 10. D. H. Lawrence, Preface to the American Edition of New Poems, McDonald (1936), 218–19, 220.

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Index An ‘n.’ after a page number indicates an endnote. ‘Adequacy’ 47–8 Aeschylus 3–6, 14, 22–3 alienation 106 Antony and Cleopatra 18 Armstrong, Isobel 53n. 27 Armstrong Browning Library notebook 24, 26, 50n. 8, 52n. 26 As You Like It 74 Aurora Leigh 2, 8, 12–13, 84–5, 88–9 breadth of categories 84, 120 form, Shakespeare and see blank verse see also individual terms Avery and Stott, 11n. 24, 50n. 4 Barrett, Edward 34, 53n. 32 Barton, John 94, 100 Bate, Jonathan 10n. 15 Bayne, Peter 129n. 3 Beer, Gillian 10n. 17 Beer, John 83 belief, love and 79–80 Berg notebooks 36, 52n. 21, 52n. 26 Bergson, Henri 129n. 9 Billone, Amy 35, 53n. 31 biography 54 misconceptions 1–2 reluctance 1, 53 see also individual terms Blair, Kirstie 50n. 10, 11, 122n. 5 and 12 Blake, Kathleen 10n. 15 blank verse 85 centrality 86–7

death 101, 105 emotional power 102 form as subject matter 92–3 gender issues 106, 108–9, 111–13, 119 honesty in 106–7 ideals and spiritual consciousness 116–17 ideology 108, 109, 114–15 improvised 85–6, 87–8, 89–90, 91–3, 94, 95, 97–8, 105, 107–8, 110 impulsive style 86, 90 limitations 85 living art 88–9, 95, 96–8, 106, 109, 110, 114, 115–16, 119 madness 105 moral issues 111–14, 117 mutual dependence 117–20 narrative self and experiencing self 96 originality 85–6 outsiders 106, 108 pauses 98–104 prose and poetry 95, 125 Romanticism 127 rules and 86, 90–1 seclusion and social exchange 125 soliloquy 108, 111 time 91, 96–8, 109–10 world views in 111, 113–14, 115 Bloom, Harold 9n. 3, 108 Book of the Poets, The 3, 6, 86 Booth, Stephen 33



Index 139

Brontë, Charlotte 126, 127, 129n. 6 Brontë, Emily 124n. 4 Brook, Peter 23 Browning, Robert 2, 54, 58, 84, 126–7 see also individual terms Byron, Lord George 123n. 17 ‘Calls on the Heart’ 24, 26–7, 28–9 concentration 29–30 creativity 24 emotional power 27–8, 29–30, 38–9, 50–1n. 13 form 26, 30 sequences 26 Campbell, Matthew 50n. 11, 122n. 5 and 12 certainty, creativity and 32 character embodiment 14–19 in verse see individual titles Classicism originality and 3–5, 22–3 Romanticism and 5 as source material 5 Cohen, Paula Marantz 9n. 3 Coleridge, William Taylor 23 collaboration 12 ‘Comfort’ 48–9 composition 30–1, 94–5 concentration 29–30, 47–8 confession 63–4 conscience, spiritual consciousness and 12–13 content form and 25–6, 30, 31, 32, 33, 40, 55–6 in verse see individual titles Cooper, Helen 81n. 7 creativity 6, 7, 19, 23–4, 29, 31, 62–3 centrality 1, 2–3 certainty and 32 collaboration 12 discipline and 23

misconceptions 1–2 see also individual terms Dante 63, 82n. 10, 82n. 11 confession 63 creativity 62–3 love 62 David, Deirdre 123n. 24 David, Samuel 39, 40–1, 43, 48 Davis, Philip 18, 19, 45, 123n. 21 death 33, 34, 35, 38, 53n. 32, 101, 105 love and 56 paradoxes 41–3, 113 discipline 25 concentration 29–30, 47–8 creativity and 23 impulsive style and 24–5, 33, 86, 90 Donaldson, Sandra 9n. 2 Dowden, Edward 129n. 5 Drama of Exile, A emotional power 15–16, 17 originality 19 spiritual consciousness 15–17, 19 dramatic modes 58–9, 84, 93, 121n. 2 immediacy 96 performance and 94, 95–6 prose and poetry 95 see also individual terms Drummond, Clara 10n. 16 Eliot, George 84, 125–6 Eliot, T. S. 63 embodiment 13–14, 20–1, 116 as character 14–19 emotional power 3, 16, 102 constraints on 46–8 grief see grief love 54–8, 60–1, 62, 63–4, 65, 67–8, 74–7, 78–81, 83n. 20, 83n. 23

140

Index

enjambment 59–60, 88 experiencing self, narrating self and 96 faith love and 63–4 paradoxes 65–6 finality, love and 78, 83n. 23 form as blank verse see blank verse as codified 122n. 8 content and 25–6, 30, 31, 32, 33, 40, 55–6 finite 39–40, 53n. 27 improvised 31–2, 37, 52n. 22, 69–75, 88 paradoxes 37 performance and 70–1 prior 30–1 regenerative 41 as subject matter 92–3 traditional 35–6 volta as 45, 48, 74, 121 Freccero, John 62–3 Fuller, David 71 gender issues 6, 8, 50n. 4, 62, 81–2n. 7, 119 centrality 1 improvisation and 86 individualism 108–9 misconceptions 1, 9n. 3 originality 5, 62 paradoxes 19–20, 25, 51–2n. 18, 106, 108, 111–13 Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar 9n. 6, 123n. 24 ‘Grief’ 121 emotional power 44–6 living art 44–5 grief 15–16, 17, 26, 27–8, 29–30, 36–8, 50–1n. 13, 51–2n. 18, 121 cures 7

finite 40–1 incapacitation 34–5 love and 55–7, 58, 74–5 misconceptions 34 paradoxes 38, 43–6, 48–9, 53n. 32 regenerative 38–9, 49, 52n. 26 Hamlet 105–6 death 105 emotional power 16 honesty 106–7 ideology 108 madness 105 outsiders 106, 108 pauses 98–9 Hardy, Thomas 38 Harrington, Emily 53n. 35, 122n. 8 and 12 Hayter, Alethea 9n. 4, 62, 123n. 14 Hazlitt, William 5 Hemans, Felicia 51n. 18 honesty 106–7 Horne, Richard Hengist 1, 12, 13, 29, 34, 98 ‘How do I love thee?’ 54 form 69–70, 73 music 68–9 iambic metre 37 as blank verse see blank verse ideals 30 spiritual consciousness and 116–17 ideology 31, 108, 109 misconceptions 2, 6–7 paradoxes 114–15 impulsive style 33, 86, 90 mannered style and 24–5 Inboden, Robyn L. 10n. 15 individualism 108–9 limitations 117–20 Inferno (Dante) 82n. 11

‘Insufficiency’ 32–3 creativity 31 death 33 emotional power 43 form 31, 33 ideology 31 impulsive style 33 ‘Irreparableness’ death 41–3 form 41, 121 Joyce, Zonana 122n. 3 Kaplan, Cora 96, 123n. 24 Keats, John 29, 129n. 7 Kerrigan, John 41 King Lear death 33 emotional power 46 enjambment 59–60 La Vita Nuova (Dante) confession 63 love 62 ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’ 94–5 Later Life (Rossetti) 65–6 Lawrence, D. H. 9, 128 Leighton, Angela 35, 50n. 10, 53n. 35, 75–6, 81n. 7 Lewis, Linda M. 17 living art 1, 8, 43–5, 49, 76, 88–9, 95, 96–8, 106, 110, 116, 119 constraints on 34–5, 109 paradoxes 114, 115–16 Lootens, Tricia 11n. 23, 123n. 16 love 62, 83n. 20 belief and 79–80 centrality 79, 80–1 constraints on 56, 57–8 death and 56 faith and 63–4 finality and 78, 83n. 23 grief and 55–7, 58, 74–5

Index 141 originality 75–7 paradoxes 54–5, 60, 65, 67–8, 74, 78–9, 80 regenerative 58, 60–1, 64 Lovelie, Elizabeth 53n. 33 madness 105 mannered style, impulsive style and 24–5 Marshall, Gail 10n. 14, 11n. 20 and 22, 83n. 22, 87, 95, 123n. 16, 129n. 3 ‘Mask, The’ 26 sequences 26 McSweeney, Kerry 66, 82n. 14, 84, 96 Measure for Measure death 113 gender issues 112–13 ideals and spiritual consciousness 116–17 individualism 118–19 moral issues 112–14, 117 world views 113–14 Meredith, George 67, 82–3n. 14 love 67–8 Mermin, Dorothy 5, 10n. 15, 50n. 4, 81n. 7, 83n. 22, 123n. 24 metaphysics 77–8 metre 121, 122n. 8 as blank verse see blank verse improvised 31–2, 37, 52n. 22, 69–75, 88 Meynell, Alice 31 Middlemarch (G. Eliot) 125–6 Modern Love (Meredith) 67, 82–3n. 14 love 67–8 Monna Innominata (Rossetti) 82n. 14 love 65 paradoxes 65 time 66–7 moral issues 111–14, 117

142

Index

ideals 30, 116–17 music 68–9, 73–4 mutual dependence 117–20 Myers, William 124n. 4 narrating self, experiencing self and 96 Novy, Marianne 11n. 21 Oliver, Douglas 41 originality 6, 8–9, 12–13, 62, 64–5 Classicism and 3–5, 22–3 limitations 4–5, 62–3 as primary 4, 5–6, 19, 20, 22–3, 75–7, 85–6 Romanticism and 5 Othello 50n. 3 outsiders 106, 108 ‘Pain in Pleasure’ 46 Palfrey, Simon 16, 96, 98, 100, 123n. 28 ‘Past and Future’ death 38 emotional power 36–9, 40–1, 52n. 26 past time, present time and 9, 96–7 pauses 98–100, 101–3 centrality 100–1, 104 performance and 100 present time and 100, 103–4 volta and 45, 48, 74, 121 performance dramatic modes and 94, 95–6 form and 70–1 parts in 95–6 pauses and 100 reluctance 94–5, 100 Petrarchan sonnet 36 volta 45, 48, 74, 121 Phelan, Joseph 10n. 10, 51n. 18, 64–5 ‘Poet’s Vow, The’

complementarity 21–2 seclusion and social exchange 121 spiritual consciousness 21–2 Poole, Adrian 11n. 20, 95, 128n. 1 present time 97–8, 110, 128, 129n. 9 past time and 9, 96–7 pauses and 100, 103–4 Prometheus Bound 3–5, 22–3 prose, poetry and 95, 125, 126, 127 Psyche Apocalypté creativity 12 originality 12 spiritual consciousness 12, 13–14, 19 pyrrhic metre 69–70 realism 125–6 Reide, David G. 50n. 4 Remember (Rossetti) 74–5 van Remoortel, Marianne 82n. 7 revised poems 26, 28–9, 32–3 constraints from 56, 57–8 creativity 29 death 41–3 emotional power 26, 27–8, 29–30, 50–1n. 13 form 30, 33, 41, 90–2 limitations 89 pauses 100–1 Romanticism 127–8 Classicism and 5 originality and 5 ‘Romaunt of Margret, The’ 21, 22 Romeo and Juliet gender issues 20 love 76–7, 83n. 20 Rossetti, Christina faith 65–6 love 65, 74–5 paradoxes 65, 82n. 14 time 66–7



Index 143

Ruskin, John 2, 3 Saintsbury, George 86 seclusion 124, 128n. 1 social exchange and 121, 125 second self 126–7, 129n. 5 Seraphim, The complementarity 21–2 originality 19 spiritual consciousness 14–15, 19, 20–1 Shakespeare, William 2–3 centrality 3, 6, 7, 10n. 14, 120–1, 127 misconceptions 6, 11n. 20 originality 4, 5–6, 19 see also individual terms Sharpe, Philip David 9n. 9 Sidney, Philip 53n. 37 social exchange, seclusion and 121, 125 soliloquy 108, 111 Sonnets (Shakespeare) 36 sonnets 7, 8, 23, 24, 34 comfort 49, 53n. 39 concentration 47–8 creativity 23–4 death 35, 38, 41–3 emotional power 35, 36–8, 40–1, 43–7, 48–9, 51–2n. 18 form 30–1, 35–6, 37, 39–40, 41, 45, 48, 53n. 27, 74, 88, 121 gender issues 51–2n. 18 grief 52n. 26 sequences 36, 52n. 21 see also individual terms Sonnets from the Portuguese 3, 7–8, 54 centrality 64–5 form 55–6, 70–5 love 74–7, 78–81 metaphysics 77–8 music 73–4 originality 64–5

paradoxes 65, 68, 74 sequences 55, 58, 81n. 2 time 78 see also individual terms ‘Soul’s Travelling, The’ 13 space 21 Spiller, Michael 39, 62 spiritual consciousness 19, 20, 21–2 conscience and 12–13 embodiment 13–19, 20–1, 116 ideals and 116–17 spondaic metre 88 Stern, Tiffany 96, 100 Stone, Marjorie 5, 9n. 4, 10n. 15, 50n. 10, 122n. 3, 123n. 17 Taylor, Olivia Gatti 122n. 3 Tennyson, Alfred, Lord 39, 44, 49, 52n. 22 time 91, 109–10 change and 78 paradoxes 66–7 present time 9, 96–8, 100, 103–4, 110, 128, 129n. 9 trochaic metre 52n. 22 inversion 69–70 Tucker, Cynthia Grant 82n. 14 Tucker, Herbert 11n. 18, 122n. 3 Twelfth Night emotional power 45–6, 53n. 32 pauses 99 unity 30 Vendler, Helen 30, 59, 75 Villette (C. Brontë) 126, 127, 129n. 6 volta 45, 48, 74, 121 Williams, Rhian 10n. 10 Winter’s Tale, The 46 ‘Wisdom Unapplied’ 26 sequences 26 withdrawal from life 21, 39

144

Index

from grief see grief as inward persons 59–61 paradoxes 43–6, 53n. 32, 55, 57, 67 as seclusion 121, 124, 125, 128n. 1

Woolf, Virginia 2, 8–9, 86, 122n. 7, 125, 128 Wordsworth, William 35 world views 111, 113–14, 115 Wright, George T. 52n. 22, 70, 85