The Hero and the Sage: Elizabeth Barrett's Sonnets "To George Sand" in Victorian Context

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IN DECEMBER OF 1844 AMEDEE PICHOT, EDITOR OF REVUE BRITANNIQUE, published a French translation of To George Sand: A Desire" along with the English version. (1) Elizabeth Barrett had published her two sonnets "To George Sand" only a few months earlier in Poems, 1844. (2) In a footnote, Pichot asserted that the purpose of Revue Britannique was partly to redress "les injustes attaques" against French culture and partly to recognize "les hommages" from foreigners for French national figures. He sent to Sand a copy of his French version of Barrett's sonnet, which begins with a dramatic apostrophe:

   Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,
   Self-called George Sand! whose soul, amid the lions
   Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance
   And answers roar for roar, as spirits can. (3)

In 1844, she was close to forty, and with her more radical days behind her, Sand responded with wit and modesty. She wrote back to Pichot, "Je ne suis plus d'age a entendre tant de lions rugir en moi-meme et je ne me souviens pas qu'ils y aient jamais fait si grand vacarme" ("I am no longer of an age when I hear so much lions roaring within me, and I do not recall that they ever made that much of an uproar"--English translation mine). (4) Then she added that the press gave her more credit for social change than she deserved. The press? Even though she was reading poetic language in French translation, Sand recognized diction from the English press debates about her controversial novels and social conduct.

The topical language apparent to Sand is no longer apparent to readers. As a result, although the sonnets "To George Sand" have regularly appeared in anthologies since the late twentieth century, they remain two of Barrett's most difficult poems. Feminist critics like Sandra Donaldson praise the sonnets for showing "the variety of women's experiences" and a "union of the manly and womanly in a 'pure genius'" like Sand. (5) Yet even sympathetic readers of the poems question their aesthetic merit. How could a poet who was often so skillful with language produce poems that seem "clumsy, involuted and laborious" (Patricia Thomson) or "awkward" if "desperately sincere" (Elaine Showalter)? (6)

Part of the difficulty stems from the poet's attitude toward Sand, which Dorothy Mermin has aptly described as "profoundly mixed." (7) Sand appears in Barrett's letters as a "brilliant monstrous woman" who might be a "genius" and who might be "dangerous" because of the "irresistible power she attributes to human passion." (8) The seemingly clumsy form of the two sonnets could reflect this confused adoration.

However, part of the difficulty also stems from a twentieth-century critical tradition in which a poem would be evaluated in terms of aesthetic, organic unity without necessarily considering historical context. For the past few decades, historicist critics like Antony H. Harrison have advanced a methodology that provides a bridge between aesthetic considerations and historical setting--"an archaeology that will eventually expose the complete and particular contexts surrounding the production, publication, and reception of literary works." (9) In fact, close attention to the topical nuances in poetic language can enrich the aesthetic experience of readers no longer in the Victorian era. In the case of Barrett's sonnets, the Victorian context reveals carefully chosen diction that responds to specific issues raised in the English press--about Sand, of course, but about other public issues as well, like heroes and heroism, and even the value of literary and Biblical texts. Most importantly for understanding the difficult style, the diction and syntax of the sonnets "To George Sand" correspond to sage discourse. Elizabeth Barrett admired Thomas Carlyle, and while asserting the heroism of Sand, she was also experimenting with the voice of a cultural sage for herself.

To many writers of the Victorian press, Sand was hardly heroic. …