Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) understood an intimate connection between poetry and religion. In a letter to her friend, Mary Russell Mitford, 20 January, 1842, she explained:

Perhaps we may differ a little upon what is called religious poetry. . . . My fixed opinion is . . . that the experiment has scarcely been tried .. & that a nobler ‘Genie du Christianisme’ [The Genius of Christianity—a defense of the Catholic faith] than has been contemplated by Chateaubriand, will yet be developed in poetical glory & light. The failure of religious poets turns less upon their being religious, than on their not being poets. Christ’s religion is essentially poetry—poetry glorified.

Convinced that the highest poetry was essentially religious and that “Christ’s religion” was poetic, Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent her life experimenting with and finding an expression of Christianity through her poems.

 

Copy of a photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, aged 52, taken by Louis Cyrus Macaire and Jean Victor Macaire-Warnod, Le Hâvre, on 18 September 1858.<br />

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Copy of a photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, aged 52, taken by Louis Cyrus Macaire and Jean Victor Macaire-Warnod, Le Hâvre, on 18 September 1858.

This photograph, taken near the time Aurora Leigh was published, was reproduced as a mirror image in The Critic (New York), April 1903, on page 321, from a second ambrotype, sent to C.S. Francis of New York. The location of the original photograph is unknown.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, aged 52. A proof-engraving by T.O. Barlow, London, 1859, of a photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning taken by les frères Macaire, Le Hâvre, on 18 September 1858. <br />

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning, aged 52. A proof-engraving by T.O. Barlow, London, 1859, of a photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning taken by les frères Macaire, Le Hâvre, on 18 September 1858.

This proof-engraving was touched-up by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and is accompanied by his notes and, on the verso, the notes of his brother, William Michael Rossetti. This image is the frontispiece to the 1859, fourth edition of Aurora Leigh. Rossetti here re-imagined Elizabeth’s image even as she herself had re-imagined “Christ’s religion” through her own poetry.

 

Browning sent over to me (say in 1863) ^in 1858^ a photograph of Mrs. Br. wh. he wished to have engraved in Aurora Leigh – I gave it to Barlow to engrave – B. made this proof-engraving & Gabriel wrote on it his suggestions for improvements – wh. were I think all carried out.

                                                               Wm. Rossetti

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Seraphim. Fair copy of lines 513–549, 2 pages numbered 23–24.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Seraphim. Fair copy of lines 513–549, 2 pages numbered 23–24.

One of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s early attempts at using religion in poetry presented a conventional religious event, the crucifixion, in an unconventional way. In her own words,

My desire was to gather some vision of the supreme spectacle under a less usual aspect,— to glance at it, as dilated in seraphic eyes, and darkened and deepened by the near association of blessedness and Heaven.

A few years later Elizabeth began to write poems more socially engaged poems that strongly appealed to the religious conscience of readers to motivate reform and that criticized the misuse of religion to justify inaction. “The Cry of the Children” and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” are examples of her attempts to express Christ’s social religion.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Rock me softly—softly mother.” Draft in MS Sonnets (ff. 24–19v rev.), 183 lines.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Rock me softly—softly mother.” Draft in MS Sonnets (ff. 24–19v rev.), 183 lines.

 

These lines may include two separate poems on a related subject to “The Cry of the Children,” the second (ff. 23v–19v Rev.) beginning “O pardon dear lady, for standing unsightly” and containing thirty-eight 4-line stanzas.

These poetic drafts reveal Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s efforts to work out ideas and strategies that she pursued in the published poem “The Cry of the Children.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point (“I stand on the mark beside the shore”). § First part of a draft, including stanzas 1–13, without stanza 7, here entitled “Black and Mad at Pilgrim’s Point,” annotated by Robert Browning.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point" (“I stand on the mark beside the shore”). First part of a draft, including stanzas 1–13, without stanza 7, here entitled “Black and Mad at Pilgrim’s Point,” annotated by Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (“I stand on the mark beside the shore”).  Final part of D0800, including stanzas 27–36, four pages numbered 9–12, annotated by Robert Browning, signed with initials.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (“I stand on the mark beside the shore”).  Final part of a draft, including stanzas 27–36, four pages numbered 9–12, annotated by Robert Browning, signed with initials.

These poetic drafts offer insight into Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s decisions and revisions while composing “The Runaway Slave.” They also provide a rare opportunity to study the ways in which she and Robert collaborated in the composition process.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. Draft of I, 9–28 and 204–207, on a page numbered 7.<br />

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. Draft of Book I, lines 9–28 and 204–207, on a page numbered 7.

Another of the Armstrong Browning Library’s artifacts related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s uses of religion is an early, undated manuscript fragment of her verse-novel, Aurora Leigh. This page-long fragment reveals that Barrett Browning made several important alterations to her work. The page is numbered 7 (presumably in EBB’s own hand), yet it begins with lines that become 9-28 in the final edition. This is an indication that Elizabeth likely did some wholesale re-ordering of her work—perhaps deleting or moving the lines she had written on pages 1-6 (now lost).

In the first line of the manuscript, Barrett Browning begins with a divine invocation that she later deletes in the final version: “God help me – I am still what men call young” becomes “I, writing thus, am still what men call young.” There are several possible interpretations of this removal. The first is that she is consciously removing God from her writing—that she is instead seeking to tell a secular narrative. However, this interpretation seems unlikely because she decides to keep the manuscript’s second reference to God, which becomes line 204 of the completed poem: “So, nine full years, our days were hid with God.” An alternate interpretation would see the first version, “God help me,” as an invocation of a divine muse, in the epic tradition of Milton. Its removal, then, would be Elizabeth’s conscious attempt to appeal to the “better self” for whom she writes the final poem. “God help me” (especially juxtaposed next to the “men” who call her young) could also be read as feminine weakness, and Barrett Browning may have desired to present a stronger initial impression of herself as author. While plausible arguments could be made for all of these interpretations, the removal of “God help me” strengthens the verse-novel’s narrative arc. Aurora Leigh narrates the title character’s spiritual development, as she comes to see her writing as a divine vocation. Placing an appeal to God this early in the poem would perhaps lessen the author’s intended contrast between Aurora at this point and the spiritually mature Aurora at the end of the story.


- Exhibition Text by Alicia Constant and Melinda Creech

Elizabeth Barrett Browning