Among all female poets of the English-speaking world in the 19th century, none was held in higher critical esteem or was more admired for the independence and courage of her views than Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During the years of her marriage to Robert Browning, her literary reputation far surpassed that of her poet-husband; when visitors came to their home in Florence, she was invariably the greater attraction. She had a wide following among cultured readers in England and in the United States. An example of the reach of her fame may be seen in the influence she had upon the reclusive poet who lived in the rural college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. A framed portrait of Barrett Browning hung in the bedroom of Emily Dickinson, whose life had been transfigured by the poetry of “that Foreign Lady.” From the time when she had first become acquainted with Barrett Browning’s writings, Dickinson had ecstatically admired her as a poet and as a woman who had achieved such a rich fulfillment in her life. So highly regarded had she become by 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death, that she was prominently mentioned as a possible successor to the poet laureateship. Her humane and liberal point of view manifests itself in her poems aimed at redressing many forms of social injustice, such as the slave trade in America, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, the oppression of the Italian people by the Austrians, and the restrictions forced upon women in 19th-century society.
- Poetry Foundation
"Aurora Leigh" is an epic narrative poem written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a prominent Victorian-era poet. It was first published in 1856 and is considered one of Barrett Browning's most significant works. The poem tells the story of Aurora Leigh, a young woman who aspires to be a poet and struggles to find her place in the male-dominated literary world of the 19th century.
The poem is written in the form of a verse novel and consists of nine books. It addresses various themes, including gender roles, art, social class, and the pursuit of personal and creative fulfillment. Aurora Leigh, the protagonist, is portrayed as a strong and independent woman who challenges societal norms and seeks to establish herself as a writer.
The narrative unfolds through Aurora's own voice as she recounts her life story, from her childhood in Italy to her education in England and her experiences as a struggling writer. Along the way, she encounters various characters and confronts obstacles, including poverty, the expectations of her family, and the limitations imposed on women during that time.
"Aurora Leigh" also explores social and political issues of the Victorian era, such as the industrial revolution, the working class, and the plight of women. Barrett Browning's poem reflects her own progressive views and advocacy for social reforms, particularly regarding women's rights and the power of education.
from Aurora Leigh
In those days, though, I never analysed Myself even. All analysis comes late. You catch a sight of Nature, earliest, In full front sun-face, and your eyelids wink And drop before the wonder of ‘t; you miss The form, through seeing the light. I lived, those days, And wrote because I lived–unlicensed else: My heart beat in my brain. Life’s violent flood Abolished bounds,–and, which my neighbour’s field, Which mine, what mattered? It is so in youth. We play at leap-frog over the god Term; The love within us and the love without Are mixed, confounded; if we are loved or love, We scarce distinguish. So, with other power. Being acted on and acting seem the same: In that first onrush of life’s chariot-wheels, We know not if the forests move or we. And so, like most young poets, in a flush Of individual life, I poured myself Along the veins of others, and achieved Mere lifeless imitations of life verse, And made the living answer for the dead, Profaning nature...
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 For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. 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.
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? Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is Filled by dead eyes too tender to know change? That's hardest. If to conquer love, has tried, To conquer grief, tries more ... as all things prove; For grief indeed is love and grief beside. Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love. Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide, And fold within, the wet wings of thy dove
Sonnets from the Portuguese 14. If thou must love me, let it be for nought
If thou must love me, let it be for nought Except for love's sake only. Do not say I love her for her smile ... her look ... her way Of speaking gently, ... for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine, and certes brought A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'-- For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so. Neither love me for Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,-- A creature might forget to weep, who bore Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby! But love me for love's sake, that evermore Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's legacy extends beyond her acclaimed "Sonnets from the Portuguese." She was a prolific poet and writer whose work addressed a wide range of themes and subjects. Her contributions to literature and her influence on social and political issues of her time are part of her significant legacy.
Literary Contributions: In addition to her sonnets, Barrett Browning wrote a variety of other poetry collections, including "Poems" (1844) and the epic poem "Aurora Leigh" (1856). "Aurora Leigh" is considered one of her most important works and explores themes of feminism, art, and social justice. Barrett Browning's poetry is known for its introspective exploration of the human condition, social criticism, and her engagement with political and social issues.
Social and Political Engagement: Barrett Browning was deeply engaged with the social and political issues of her time. Her writing advocated for the abolition of slavery, the reform of child labor laws, and women's rights. She expressed her support for the Italian unification movement, which aimed to unify various Italian states into a single nation. Barrett Browning's poetry often reflected her strong moral convictions and her desire for social change.
Influence on Feminism: Barrett Browning's writings were instrumental in advancing feminist thought during the Victorian era. Her works challenged traditional gender roles and explored women's experiences, aspirations, and challenges. By giving voice to women's perspectives and advocating for their rights and equality, she played a crucial role in the emerging feminist movement of the time.
Impact on Future Writers: Barrett Browning's work has had a lasting impact on subsequent generations of poets and writers. Her innovative use of language, introspective exploration of emotions, and engagement with social issues influenced later poets such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Her bold and honest expression of personal experiences and emotions paved the way for confessional poetry, a genre that gained prominence in the 20th century.
Symbol of Love and Romance: Barrett Browning's love story with Robert Browning, as portrayed in the "Sonnets from the Portuguese," has become an enduring symbol of love and devotion. Their deep and passionate relationship, which led to their elopement and marriage, has captured the imagination of readers throughout the years. The enduring popularity of their love story has further contributed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's legacy.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's legacy encompasses her literary achievements, social activism, and her role as a feminist trailblazer. Her impact on literature and her dedication to social justice continue to resonate, making her an influential figure in both the literary and social spheres.