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Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most respected poets of the Victorian era.
Born in County Durham, the eldest of 12 children, Browning was educated at home. She wrote poetry from around the age of six and this was compiled by her mother, comprising what is now one of the largest collections extant of juvenilia by any English writer. At 15 Browning became ill, suffering from intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life, rendering her frail. She took laudanum for the pain, which may have led to a lifelong addiction and contributed to her weak health.
In the 1830s Barrett's cousin John Kenyon introduced her to prominent literary figures of the day such as William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle. Browning's first adult collection The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. During this time she contracted a disease, possibly tuberculosis, which weakened her further. Living at Wimpole Street, in London, Browning wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation and prose. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in child labour legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Browning's volume Poems (1844) brought her great success. During this time she met and corresponded with the writer Robert Browning, who admired her work. The courtship and marriage between the two were carried out in secret, for fear of her father's disapproval. Following the wedding she was disinherited by her father and rejected by her brothers. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had one son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Towards the end of her life, her lung function worsened, and she died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.
Browning was brought up in a strongly religious household, and much of her work carries a Christian theme. Her work had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. She is remembered for such poems as "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43, 1845) and Aurora Leigh (1856).
Certainly an accomplished poet, and an important Victorian exemplar, and a very interesting life and epic love for Robert Browning, yet I don't find myself blown over by her work. Admiration but more like the marble effigy on my cover, I admire without emotional connection.
I've always loved her sonnets, but some of her 'other' works are just as beautiful. We easily see professions of affection as love, but EBB's ideas of social change embody her poetry as much as that. The feeling in her poems about the evils of slavery, the ragged children of the poor, and other social problems easily reflect the poetic spirit.
I find myself disagreeing with her idea that poets should stick with the present world, rather than writing of 'castles and kings.' When we read or write of the past, we are able to reflect on the past and find the enduring values that need to remain in the present and in the future. We also see evidences of moral wrong that serve as examples for our own hearts, as in Achille's desire for revenge, when he dragged Hector's dead body around the city. We are motivated by these ideas to change our own hearts. I think they serve as good sources for poetic ideas as those in the modern day and future will.
Firstly, I only read Aurora Leigh, not the additional pieces in the book.
EBB begins Aurora Leigh with the posit that epic poetry isn't dead. While I (a) agree that epic poetry is still wonderful to read and (b) see how the form of poetry allowed her to be more emotive than prose might, I have to say that I think the experiment is a failure. Epic poetry is given to action - to battles, hero racing against foe, to Odysseus and Beowulf. It's not given to modern stories like Aurora Leigh, and in particular it's not a good form to periodically go off on tangents (however much their moral explorations are relevant to the main character's narrative) as EBB does.
So while I appreciated EBB's storyline and, to a degree, her storytelling, the main premise of her book - and the resulting slog through what could otherwise have been an enjoyable, easy read - caused me more frustration than anything else. I love poetry - but like all art forms, it needs to be used well by the artist.
This is my first time actually writing down a review. Browning’s sonnets are simply stunning. Aurora Leigh is an interesting take on the epic genre and is filled with its moments. I liked Lady Geraldine’s Courtship as well.
However, I just can’t connect with her other poems and especially Casa Guidi Windows. Her verses in a lot of her poems are well crafted, but they just fail to provoke an emotional response from me. Excessive allusions to mythology and historical figures also just take me out of the reading — I guess that’s the limitation with her poems, and maybe that’s why a lot of them didn’t stand the test of time (or maybe I’m just ignorant). Her poetry is also too religious at times.
Fascinating poem, the edition is fine. I haven't read much of the other poetry in the collection yet. Once again, Goodreads here groups wildly different books with the title "AL and other poems" together. Only the Penguin editions are identical, all the others don't have the editorial matter (introduction, notes &c) of the Penguin and also presumably different selection of the poems. It doesn't make a lot of sense to group these together.
I really enjoyed Aurora Leigh, but was not so keen on some of the other poems. All the same, it's not what I expected and definitely worth reading. From the point of view of study, the notes were pretty helpful too.