Book Review: The Poetical Works Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Poetical Works Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with a new introduction by Ruth M. Adams

Sometimes more is less. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, as this volume helpfully informs us, a very prolific and beloved poetess during the early Victorian era from the 1830’s to her death in 1861. This book’s size and the extensive nature of its contents demonstrates just how prolific she was. Yet she is not a poetess who is well appreciated today. Among her works, only the “Sonnets From The Portuguese” are well known and they are but a very small and not very representative sample of her poetical writing. To be sure, love poetry is not an unfamiliar matter to EBB (as we will call her from here on out in this review), but it is far from the only thing that she wrote about with considerable skill and passion. She was also a passionate advocate of the cause of Italian unification, and had a lot of negative things to say about Britain’s equivocal role in not supporting that end to the extent of other European leaders like Napoleon III. EBB’s religious beliefs, which were quite strong, and her equally strong tendencies to write about the complications of life for 19th century women and her fondness for writing about controversial matters with a high degree of openness (most notably seen in her nine-part poetical novel Aurora Leigh) made her a deeply controversial figure in her own time and accounts for the obscurity that she fell into after her death when her contemporary concerns were no longer as contemporary to readers.

This hefty work of more than 500 pages gives a definitive answer to the question of how much poetical work Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote over the course of her fifty-five years or so of life. The book begins with a lengthy and appreciative, though also critical, introduction by the editor. After that comes a collection called “The Seraphim, And Other Poems,” which includes a large amount of religious poetry as well as the excellent “Cowper’s Grave.” After that comes the Poems of 1844, which includes a poetic drama of religious exile that, if not as good as Paradise Lost, is quite interesting in its own right, as well as other poems which reflect issues of love (including her excellent poem “To Flush, My Dog”) as well as death (including “Crowned And Buried”). After that there are poems of 1850 which are also religious and frequently political in nature, including an abolitionist poem about a runaway slave that begins the collection. This is followed by “Sonnets From The Portuguese,” her best-known works, as well as the two-part “Casa Guidi Windows,” in which the author opines many things about Italian politics. What follows is the very lengthy “Aurora Leigh,” which takes up more than 150 pages and will likely try the patience of many readers. Following this comes “Poems Before Congress,” which dwells even more stridently on Italian politics during the late 1850’s. After this comes the “Last Poems,” which include some very touching works like “De Profundis” and “Bianca Among The Nightingales” and “Amy’s Cruelty,” some of her best works. This is then followed by translations, including “Prometheus Bound,” “A Lament For Adonis,” and various selections about the myth of Psyche which demonstrate her to have been a Greek scholar of considerable abilities. The book ends with some Juvenilia, some rather strident thoughts on Christian Greek poets during the Eastern Roman Empire, some notes and illustrations about her works, a chronology, a well as an index of first lines and titles.

As a result of this being a complete poetical collection, a lot of work is included that is not easy to understand or appreciate. Many of EBB’s writings require a high degree of annotation in order to make sense unless one brings to the works a high degree of knowledge about classical writings, the Italian politics of the 1850’s and early 1860’s, as well as fellow early Victorian writers (especially poets) and the debates over the role of the woman in 19th century life. Obviously, EBB’s writings are at least praised (if not read) by contemporary feminists who appreciate her perspective as a woman writing her own thoughts and presenting her own personal opinions even with (as is sometimes the case in her thinking on politics and public morality) not necessarily wise or decent. In addition to this, the fact that her best-known writings are those which are the least representative of her somewhat strident and emotionally distant approach which frequently may alienate the contemporary reader who does not share her views or sympathies, except when it comes to the aforementioned “Sonnets From The Portuguese” as well as a few other works in praise of other poets, like Cowper, or of her beloved pet dog Flush, which come off far better than her usual writings. This book will definitely acquaint the reader with the whole poetic vision of EBB, but whether or not that is a good thing or not will depend widely on the reader.

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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