Book Review: Selected Poems (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Selected Poems, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This book is a relatively short compilation of some of the more notable poems by Victorian poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While in her own lifetime she was a very famous and well-regarded writer of whom there was an immense appetite for new writing that forced her to write more than she might have been inclined to do had she been left to her own devices, the contemporary period is not particularly fond of her writing. It is difficult to account for this entirely, but there are some reasons why this is the case. At any rate, as a writer who is known and recognized at least in part, this book makes the case for a memory of more of her works than have been remembered thus far, and it contains a goodly amount of very excellent poetry although it focuses on those poems that are the most accessible to the reader. By and large I think this to be a sound approach, as Barrett Browning wrote a lot of writings and not all of them are easy for contemporary readers to understand, much less appreciate and enjoy, and what is included here is very good and very easy to enjoy, and thus comes with a high degree of recommendation for those who are willing to read it.

This book is a bit less than 200 pages long and it consists of a selection of the poetic writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that go from her early works as a budding poetess in the 1830’s to her late works that were published after her death in 1861. This particular book takes its samples from different aspects of her writings. Four early poems are included: “Song,” “The Sea-Mew,” “A Seaside Walk,” and “Cowper’s Grave.” After that a few poems are included from “Poems of 1844.” After that a few more poems are chosen from “Poems of 1850.” The editors include the entirety of the Sonnets of the Portuguese, which is a sound decision as these poems are the most familiar of the poetess’ work to contemporary readers and the easiest to appreciate for their emotional intimacy, a quality that can be a bit elusive in some of her writings. After that there are some short selections from the author’s later work, including brief selections from her Italian work Casa Guidi Windows and selections from three of the nine works of her ambitious and controversial poetic novel Aurora Leigh, as well as a handful of poems from her Last Poems that were published after her death thanks to the efforts of her widower, the poet Robert Browning. Together they represent a fair sample of the authoress’ poetic achievement.

It is worthwhile to ponder what aspects of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writings today are the most accessible to readers. The most obvious poems of hers that are easy to appreciate are the Sonnets From The Portuguese, which are the poems she wrote about her feelings for her husband over the course of their relationship from its beginning to their marriage, showing how someone who was a recluse became invigorated by the passion of love, something that she had scarce hoped to enjoy for herself. This is very relatable and intimate and these are the sorts of feelings that other people can understand and get a grasp of and appreciate. Similarly, Amy’s Cruelty and De Profundis, relating to different kinds of love, whether one is talking about the casual way in which someone disregards the interest of another and struggles with the grief and guilt of feeling responsible for a sibling’s death, are also poems that can be easily appreciated today. Among the earlier poems, Cowper’s Grave, To Flush, My Dog, A Sabbath Morning At Sea, and A Woman’s Shortcomings and A Man’s Requirements are all poems whose virtue is easy to recognize as well without requiring a lot of knowledge about the context of the poetess’ times and other writers, and it makes sense that they are included here. “To Flush, My Dog” in particular is a poem that should be much better known among pet parents.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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