Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Ingram, 5th ed.)/Chapter 2
From Hope End the Barretts removed to Sidmouth, and resided there for two years. Nothing is known of the family doings during that time, save the publication, in 1833, of Elizabeth's second volume. This book was entitled Prometheus Bound, translated from the Greek of Æschylus, and Miscellaneous Poems, and was issued as by the author of An Essay on Mind. That author's own account is that her translation "was written in twelve days, and should have been thrown in the fire afterwards—the only means of giving it a little warmth."
Miss Barrett's judgment on her own work is perhaps somewhat too sweeping, but as she not only replaced it in after life by a more mature version, but desired the earlier attempt should be consigned to oblivion, there can be no incentive to drag it into daylight again. All the copies not issued, she says, "are safely locked up in the wardrobe of papa's bedroom, entombed as safely as Œdipus among the olives." "A few of the fugitive poems connected with that translation," she added, "may be worth a little, perhaps; but they have not so much goodness as to overcome the badncss of the blasphemy of Æschylus."
Some of the fugitive pieces thus carelessly referred to are, indeed, worth something more than a little. The initial poem, styled "The Tempest: A Fragment," not only suggests a tale of intense horror, but contains lines as grand, sonorous, and truly poetic as any blank verse Elizabeth Barrett ever published.
Several other short pieces in the 1833 volume are well worthy republication; as a reviewer has said they are, "for the most part, in no sense immature, or unworthy of the genius of the writer," and certainly are equally good with many of those poems given in her collected works. There are some grand thoughts in "A Sea-side Meditation," "A Vision of Life and Death," "Earth"; and others in the volume are well worthy their author's name, and very different from the general juvenilia of even eminent poets. There is sustained pathos, albeit bitter irony, in the lines, "To a Poet's Child"—presumably Ada Byron—whilst none of the pieces are common-place or devoid of some traces of their author's peculiar originality and genius. The lines "To Victoire, on her Marriage," unless totally different from all Elizabeth Barrett's personal poems, in being pure imagination instead of a record of real life, refer to a certain period of her life spent in France. There are not wanting proofs that Elizabeth Barrett proposed to republish, with revision, some of the poems, at least, of this volume of her early womanhood, as she did, indeed, still earlier but less meritorious pieces.
After two years' residence in Devonshire, the Barretts removed to London, where Mr. Barrett took a house at 74, Gloucester Place. After the pure country air and invigorating sea-breezes, the change was naturally a trying one for all the household, but more especially did it affect Elizabeth. Her health for years past had been delicate—as she said herself, at fifteen she nearly died—and now it gave way entirely. Instead of rambling about Devonshire lanes, or gazing upon the varying ocean, she sat and watched the sun,
Push out through fog with his dilated disk,
And startle the slant roofs and chimney pots
With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog,
Involve the passive city, strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets and squares, as if a sponge
Had wiped out London.
Notwithstanding, or rather because of, her want of health, Elizabeth devoted herself more and more to poesy. She no longer contented herself with the composition of poems, but began to send them for publication to contemporary periodicals. Chief among the friends outside her own immediate family circle whom she saw was John Kenyon, a distant relative. Mr. Kenyon, West Indian by birth, but European by education and choice, being in possession of ample means, was enabled to select his own method of living. Fond of literary and artistic society, and a dabbler in verse himself, he devoted his time to entertaining and being entertained by the makers of pictures and poems. Crabb Robinson, who knew everybody of his time worth knowing, describes Kenyon as having the face of a Benedictine monk and the joyous talk of a good fellow. He delights, he says, in seeing at his hospitable table every variety of literary notabilities, and was popularly styled the "feeder of lions." Coleridge, Wordsworth, and most of the best, as well as best known, literary folk of the day were among Kenyon's most intimate assoeiates, and it was one among the many pleasant traits of his character to seek to introduce and make acquainted with each other such celebrities as he knew himself. Such was Kenyon, whom it delighted Elizabeth Barrett to call "cousin," and to whom she naturally turned for advice in literary matters.
It was Kenyon who introduced the young poetess to most of her earliest literary friends, and he was the means of getting her poems accepted and works noticed by the chief literary journals of the day. Many of her earlier poems have, doubtless, been lost sight of altogether, not so much on account of their unworthiness as through their author's carelessness or forgetfulness of their existence.
"The Romaunt of Margret," which appeared in the July part of the New Monthly Magazine, was a great advance upon everything the poetess had as yet published, and was well calculated to enhance her reputation, not only among those few literary acquaintances who began to proclaim her as a rising star, but also with the outside public. This fine ballad is based upon the idea which permeates so many literatures, and has excited the imagination of so many great poets, of the possibility of man's dual nature; upon the possibility of a mortal being enabled, generally just before death, to behold the double or duplicate of himself.
Although here and there somewhat misty in the filling up, as are, indeed, many of her later poems, the "Romaunt" is worthy of its author's most matured powers. It has that weird, pathetic, indescribable glamour often found pervading the older ballads, but rarely discoverable in those of modern date, and is noteworthy as being the earliest known specimen of Miss Barrett's use of the refrain, a metrical, euphonic adornment which Elizabeth Barrett, as well as her contemporary Edgar Poe, doubtless adopted from, or rather had suggested, to them by, Tennyson's resuscitation of it.
During May of this year, Miss Barrett formed the acquaintance of Mary Russell Mitford, whose friendship and advice had no little influence on her future literary career. Miss Mitford being up in London on a visit, was taken by her friend Kenyon sight-seeing; on the way they called at Gloucester Place, and, after much persuasion, induced Miss Barrett to go out with them. Miss Mitford described her as "a sweet young woman who reads Greek as I do French, and has published some translations from Æschylus, and some most striking poems. She is a delightful young creature, shy and timid and modest."
The day following Miss Mitford dined at Kenyon's, and there met several notabilities, including Wordsworth, described as "an adorable old man," Landor, "as splendid a person as Mr. Kenyon, but not so full of sweetness and sympathy," and chief of all, "the charming Miss Barrett," who, so Miss Mitford wrote home, "has translated the most difficult of the Greek plays—the Prometheus Bound—and written most exquisite poems in almost every style. She is so sweet and gentle, and so pretty, that one looks at her as if she were some bright flower." Again, Miss Mitford describes her as being at this time "of a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eye-lashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend that the translatress of Æschylus, the author of the Essay on Mind, was, in technical language, 'out.'"
To another friend, Miss Mitford described Miss Barrett as "a slight, girlish figure, very delicate, with exquisite hands and feet, a round face with a most noble forehead, a large mouth, beautifully formed and full of expression, lips like parted coral, teeth large, regular, and glittering with healthy whiteness, large dark eyes, with such eye-lashes, resting on the cheek when cast down, when turned upwards touching the flexible and expressive eyebrow, a dark complexion, literally as bright as the dark china rose, a profusion of silky, dark curls, and a look of youth and of modesty hardly to be expressed. This, added to the very simple but graceful and costly dress by which all the family are distinguished, is an exact portrait of her."
Once introduced to each other, the acquaintanceship between the two authoresses grew rapidly. "I saw much of her during my stay in town," writes Miss Mitford. "We met so constantly and so familiarly that, in spite of the difference of age, intimacy ripened into friendship, and after my return into the country, we corresponded freely and frequently, her letters being just what letters ought to be—her own talk put upon paper."
No sooner had Miss Mitford returned home to the companionship of her idolized but extremely undeserving father, than she commenced a constant and voluminous correspondence with her new friend Elizabeth Barrett, confiding all her troubles to her, in return being made acquainted with the young poetess's aspirations and achievements. The first letter from the elder correspondent, soon after her return home, was entrusted for delivery, with some flowers, to Henry Chorley, an author and influential critic, "who, if he have the good luck to be let in, as I hope he may," says Miss Mitford, "will tell you all about our doings. . . . To be sure I will come and see you when next I visit London, and I shall feel to know you better when I have had the pleasure of being introduced to Mr. Barrett, to be better authorized to love you, and to take a pride in your successes—things which, at present, I take the liberty of doing without authority." Some not altogether needless advice to her young friend on the fault of obscurity wound up the epistle.
A few weeks later Miss Mitford returned to the charge saying, "You should take my venturing to criticise your verses as a proof of the perfect truth of my praise. I do not think there can be a better test of the sincerity of the applause than the venturing to blame. It is also the fault, the one single fault (obscurity) found by persons more accustomed to judge of poetry than myself; by Mr. Dilke, for instance (proprietor of the Athenæum), and Mr. Chorley (one of its principal writers). Charles Kemble once said to me," says Miss Mitford, par exemple, "with regard to the drama, 'Think of the stupidest person of your acquaintance and, when you have made your play so clear that you are sure that he would comprehend it, then you may venture to hope that it will be understood by your audience.' And really I think the rule will hold good with regard to poetry in general." Happily Miss Barrett did not try to bring her poetry down to the level of the stupidest person's comprehension, and, although she never did free it from occasional obscurity, fortunately it never came within the category of "poetry in general."
In October, Miss Barrett contributed to the pages of the New Monthly Magazine, her lengthy ballad of "The Poet's Vow." It certainly justified Miss Mitford's hint that, though prepared to love ballads, she was "a little biassed in favour of great directness and simplicity." The poem, after opening with allusions to the duality of most mundane things, proceeds to recount, more or less directly, how a poet chose to forego all human intercourse. He gave away his worldly goods and spurned his bride expectant, in the hope, apparently, that by casting off the trammels of human sympathy he might escape the woes Adam had entailed upon the human race. To comprehend the nature of the vow and its result the poem must be read in its entirety.
"The Poet's Vow" is not only a beautiful poem but is also one of the most characteristic and representative Elizabeth Barrett ever wrote. It has not the grasp of character of "Aurora Leigh," nor the gush and glow of passion which flows through the melody of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," but it has a mournful weirdness that haunts the memory long after the words of it have been forgotten. That no sane man could make such a vow, nor that making could keep it, is beside the question; the problem being one in every respect suitable for a poet to grapple with.
Poems of the mystical nature of the two last referred to were scarcely the class of writing to prove attractive to the clear-minded, somewhat conventional, kindly-hearted Miss Mitford, Miss Barrett's chief correspondent. From time to time in the course of her chatty epistles she cautions her young friend against lapses into obscurity, bidding her write "poems of human feeling and human action." Such warnings could not have hindered Elizabeth Barrett at any time from writing as she felt, but they may have caused her to feel occasionally that the human element should not be quite overshadowed by the psychological. Sometimes when she turned her thoughts to incidents of her daily life, she wrote with a simplicity and pathetic tenderness as unparalleled in their way as were her spiritualistic speculations in theirs. One such poem as these, entitled "My Doves," refers to a pair of doves recently sent to her from the tropics as a present. She wrote to Miss Mitford:—
My little doves were ta'en away
From that glad nest of theirs,
Across an ocean rolling grey,
And tempest-clouded airs;
My little doves, who lately know
The sky and wave by warmth and blue.
And now, within the city prison,
In mist and chillness pent,
With sudden upward look they listen
For sounds of past content,
For lapse of water, swell of breeze,
Or nut-fruit falling from the trees.
The doves formed quite a topic for the two authoresses to dilate upon. Miss Mitford considered that when she said that her father was quite charmed with Miss Barrett's account of the little brown birdies, she had, indeed, awarded high honour, and when she heard that they had so far grown accustomed to the strangeness of their new habitation as to build a nest and lay their eggs therein, she sent her love to them, with the hope that the eggs might be good. "It would be such a delight to you," she wrote, "to help the parent birds to bring up their young."
A few months after this incident Miss Barrett had a very different theme to write upon, and upon it she wrote in hot haste. William the Fourth died on June 20th, 1837, and on July 1st the Athenæum contained a poem on "The Young Queen," by E. B. B.
Why this poem, so characteristic of its author, should not have been included in her Collected Works, where several earlier and less worthy pieces are given, it is difficult to say; but it is still less easy to comprehend what principle or plan has guided the editor's selection when we find excluded from the collection Miss Barrett's next production, "Victoria's Tears," a poem even finer than "The Young Queen," published the week following in the Athenæum; one quatrain of this poem has become quite a standard quotation:—
They decked her courtly halls—
They reined her hundred steeds—
They shouted at her palace gates
"A noble Queen succeeds!"
About 1837, a publication entitled Finden's Tableaux of National Character, Beauty and Costume, was started by W. and E. Finden. It was to be issued in fifteen monthly parts, each part to contain four plates, "designed and engraved by the most eminent artists," and "original tales and poems, by some of the most distinguished authors of the day." Mrs. S. C. Hall undertook the editorship of the new publication, and obtained the assistance of several well-known writers as contributors. The illustrations were of that ultra-sentimental type which adorned fashionable annuals of fifty years ago; and, although they would not in any way satisfy the more critical taste of the present time, were thought very highly of in those days. Instead of the illustrations being made to illustrate the text, writers had to manufacture, and generally in hot haste, poetry and prose to elucidate or accompany the illustrations. This system, unfortunately not yet abolished, was ruinous as a rule to the production of anything of permanent value, and yet, for various reasons, many truly high-class authors submitted to its tyranny. Elizabeth Barrett, strange to say, was one of those who did not deem it prostrating her talents to patch up pieces to accompany these pictorial shams, and, for Finden's Tableaux, wrote the introductory poem of "The Dream." The peg upon which she hung her lines was the picture of a chubby Cupid surrounded by such conventional emblems as one would expect to see decorating a "Valentine." That her stanzas were unequal—that some of them were unworthy of their authoress—is not surprising, and the only matter for wonder is that she could have been persuaded into doing such hack work.
For the third number of the Tableaux, to accompany one of these commonplace pictures, Miss Barrett wrote her ballad, "The Romaunt of the Page." The subscribers to the five-shillings part must, if they were intellectually capable of appreciating it, have been surprised at the power, originality, and beauty of the poem thus given to them.
Notwithstanding many defects, partly due to the nature of her inspiration, "The Romaunt of the Page," although not to be included among her finest poems, will always be a favourite one with Elizabeth Barrett's readers, because it is free from metaphysical obscurity and deals directly with the "human feeling and human action" Miss Mitford had so wisely recommended her to resort to as theme for her poesy. This same experienced counsellor, who had succeeded Mrs. Hall in the editorship of the Tableaux, writing to her young correspondent on 28th June, says:—
My Sweet Love—I want you to write me a poem in illustration of a very charming group of Hindoo girls floating their lamps upon the Ganges—launching them, I should say. You know that pretty superstition. I want a poem in stanzas. It must be long enough for two pages, and may be as much longer as you choose. It is for Finden's Tableaux, of which I have undertaken the editorship; and I must entreat it within a fortnight or three weeks if possible, because I am limited to time, and have only till the end of next month to send up the whole copy cut and dry. I do entreat you, my sweet young friend, not to refuse me this favour. I could not think of going to press without your assistance, and have chosen for you the very prettiest subject, and, I think, the prettiest plate of the whole twelve. I am quite sure that, if you favour me with a poem, it will be the gem of the collection.
To these highly complimentary expressions, Miss Mitford added that the proprietor had given her thirty pounds—"That is to say, five pounds each for my six poets (I am to do all the prose and dramatic scenes myself); and with this five pounds . . . I shall have the honour of sending a copy of the work, which will be all the prettier and more valuable for your assistance. . . . If you can give me time and thought enough to write one of those ballad stories, it would give an inexpressible grace and value to my volume. Depend upon it the time will come when those verses of yours will have a money value."
Miss Barrett agreed to write the required verses, not, it may be assumed, for the money value, whatever may have been her motive. The "prettiest plate," according to the dexterous editorial description, was as commonplace and conventional an engraving as one could meet with, even in those days, depicting a group of Hindoo girls, or rather women, following the traditional custom of testing their lovers' fidelity by launching little lamps fixed in cocoa shells down the Ganges. If the lover were faithful the symbol boat floated away safely down the river; but, if otherwise, the tiny token quickly disappeared. That "The Romance of the Ganges" was better than the usual run of such "plate" versification may be granted, but, notwithstanding this fact that it is, as was all she wrote at this period of her life, replete wiih Miss Barrett's idiosyncrasies, it is a poor specimen of her skill, and scarcely worthy of the warm praise lavished on it by Miss Mitford.
Whilst the editor was writing all sorts of laudatory things to and of her favourite contributor, "the most remarkable person now alive," and of her ballad, "The Romaunt of the Page," as "one of the most charming poems ever written," that contributor's life seemed hanging by a thread. At the very time that Miss Mitford was describing Elizabeth Barrett as "a young and lovely woman, who lives the life of a hermitess in Gloucester Place . . . and who passes her life in teaching her younger brothers Greek," that very person was suffering from what looked like a mortal illness. Whether she had broken a blood-vessel on the lungs, as is frequently stated, is problematical; but, at any rate, her lungs were affected, and her life, which had so long appeared waning, seemed about to flicker out. Notwithstanding the many poems she continued to write, and the long hours of study she contrived to undergo, nothing but her mind appeared to live; her body was almost helpless.
At this time, also, occurred a domestic affliction to rack the invalid's mind. It was the death of her uncle, the only brother of Mr. Edward Moulton Barrett, and who was, says Elizabeth, "in past times more than an uncle to me." As he died childless, the whole of his considerable property devolved, it is believed, upon his brother and his brother's family.
In the letter Miss Barrett wrote to Miss Mitford, informing her of her uncle's death, alluding to her own delicate health, she remarked—"The turning to spring is always trying, I believe, to affections such as mine, and my strength flags a good deal, and the cough very little; but Dr. Chambers speaks so encouragingly of the probable effect of the coming warm weather, that I take courage and his medicines at the same time, and 'to preserve the harmonics,' and satisfy some curiosity, have been reading Garth's 'Dispensary,' a poem very worthy of its subject."
Unfortunately, the hopes which Dr. Chambers endeavoured to inspire his patient with were vain. The warm weather was so long in coming that year (1838) that even in the middle of May Miss Mitford wrote, bitterly, that it seemed as if it would never come. Shortly before that letter from Miss Mitford, Miss Barrett said to her—"Our bouse in Wimpole Street is not yet finished, but we hope to see the beginning of April in it. You must not think I am very bad, only not very brisk, and really feeling more comfortable than I did a fortnight since." The improvement foreshadowed, if not imaginary, was certainly not permanent. Miss Barrett continued bodily ill, although her mental vigour never faltered. In the midst of her ailments she prepared a collection of her poems, and arranged for their publication. Writing to Miss Mitford, to thank her for some encouraging words, she tells her the projected volume will include "a principal poem called the 'Seraphim,' which is rather a dramatic lyric than a lyrical drama." "I can hardly hope that you will thoroughly like it," is her comment; "but know well that you will try to do so. Other poems, longer or shorter, will make up the volume, not a word of which is yet printed."
Why Miss Barrett feared that her friend would not be altogether satisfied with the chief poem in her volume will readily be understood by those acquainted with Miss Mitford's ideas on the treatment of "sacred" themes. The preface was, in all probability, written with a view of combating just such objections as those of her way of thinking were likely to put forward. The preface states:—
The subject of the principal poem in the present collection having suggested itself to me, though very faintly and imperfectly, when I was engaged upon my translation of the "Prometheus Bound".
I thought that had Æschylus lived after the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, he might have turned, if not in moral and intellectual, yet in poetic, faith from the solitude of Caucasus to the deeper desertness of that crowded Jerusalem, where none had any pity; from the "faded white flower" of the Titanic brow to the "withered grass" of a Heart trampled on by its own beloved; from the glorying of him who gloried that he could not die, to the sublime meekness of the taster of death for every man; from the taunt stung into being by the torment, to His more awful silence, when the agony stood dumb before the love! . . . . But if my dream be true that Æschylus might have turned to the subject before us, in poetic instinct, and if in such a case . . . its terror and its pathos would have shattered into weakness the strong Greek tongue, and caused the conscious chorus to tremble round the thymele, how much more may I turn from it, in the instinct of incompetence! . . . I have written no work, but a suggestion . . . I have felt in the midst of my own thoughts upon my own theme, like Homer's "Children in a Battle."
The agents in this poem are those mystic beings who are designated in Scripture the Seraphim. . . . I have endeavoured to mark in my two Seraphic personages, distinctly and predominantly, that shrinking from and repugnance to evil which, in my weaker Seraph, is expressed by fear, and in my stronger one by a more complex passion. . . . To recoil from evil is according to the stature of an angel; to subdue it is according to the infinitude of a God.
If the leading poem of her book failed to make the impression on her readers Miss Barrett desired, it was neither owing to her want of the requisite learning, nor the poetic power to deal with her abstruse theme, but rather that the public preferred to abstract spiritualities such poems as Miss Mitford described—"poems of human feeling and human action." With respect to the other shorter pieces in her book, the authoress claimed that though if her life were prolonged she would hope to write better verses hereafter, she could never feel more intensely than at that moment "the sublime uses of poetry and the solemn responsibilities of the poet." When it is considered that among the poems thus referred to were, besides those already spoken of, such examples of her genius as "Isabel's Child," "The Deserted Garden," "Cowper's Grave," and others equally representative of her various moods, and all now become permanent glories of our language and literature, the intensity of Elizabeth Barrett's feelings in their production will not be doubted for a moment by anyone having belief in "the sublime uses" of her art, and in "the solemn responsibilities" alluded to by their architect.