Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – A Poet on Her Art and Its Penalties

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

Despite the many personal and emotional traumas experienced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning during her lifetime, (1806-1861), her situation improved both emotionally and artistically after she married poet Robert Browning. She was delighted by the Italian liberation from Austrian oppression and began to value her poetry as a possible means for action. 'Now she saw herself as involved, commenting powerfully and controversially on political events, and seeking to change what was happening through the medium of her poetry,' say Margaret Foster, in her introduction to the book Selected Poems - Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The Artist's Part - Both to Be and Do
In 'The poet on her art and its penalties', whose lines are found in the Fifth Book of Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning expresses the terrible conflicts between the woman poet's personal life and her art:
The artist's part is both to be and do,
Transfixing with a special, central power
The flat experiences of the common man...
In this section of Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning uses the conventional, masculine language of her day. 'He' means an artist of either sex, while 'man' means the human race. The penalties of the title are the drudgeries of living through human experience and trying to convert it into art through passion:
We, staggering 'neath our burden as mere men,
Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods,
Support the intolerable strain and stress
Of the universal, and send clearly up,
With voices broken by the human sob,
Our poems to find rhymes among the stars!
Barrett Browning tells us that her passion has no outlet and that her life is a paradox. She must sacrifice the passion of marriage in order to do justice to her art, a dilemma for women in Victorian society. The question Aurora asks is whether art can be a substitute for marriage.
It Was a Man Said That
The last, tentative line of the following section, seems to suggest that a woman's paradox is somehow different from a man's, and that it will not be regarded as weighty as a 'man's paradox'. Merely proposing it becomes a 'risk' and the poet chooses to enclose this line in brackets.
Appraised by love, associated with love,
While we sit loveless! is it hard, you think?
At least, 'tis mournful. Fame, indeed, 'twas said,
Means simply love. It was a man said that,
And then, there's love and love: the love of all
(To risk, in turn, a woman's paradox.)
Then she speaks of a hungry child, for writing poems will not keep a child satisfied:
He says he's hungry - he would rather have
That little barley-cake you keep from him
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, like Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, lived at a time when women poets were expected to write about feelings, about personal experience and about domesticity in their poetry. Yet Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not see herself as a champion of feminism or feminist qualities; on the contrary, she repudiated the very idea of a female self. 'My mind is naturally independent, and spurns the subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to female softness...'
In Victorian Women Poets, An Anthology, Margaret Reynolds says: 'The power of these two parallel commonplaces - the gender construction of woman as instinctive, feeling, personal, and the consequent genderizing of poetry... - had far-reaching consequences which would stretch well beyond the nineteenth century.' Margaret Reynolds explains the riskiness of being a woman and a poet, due to assumptions made about women and about poetry. According to Reynolds, these assumption do not equate with the reality of literary practice. The reality was that the annuals and anthologies of women poets that were being published then were good in one sense, in permitting a platform for their contributors. On the other hand: '[They] were also bad for women writers because they seemed to promote a small and trivialized style of poetry in which women were presumed to specialise.'
'The Poet on her art and its penalties', Aurora Leigh, (Fifth Book) ed. Margaret Reynolds, Ohio University Press, 1991.
'Introduction' by Margaret Foster, Selected Poems - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chatto & Windus, London, 1988
Victorian Women Poets, An Anthology, ed. Angela Leighton & Margaret Reynolds, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, UK, Mass. USA, 1995

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