Biblical Criticism and Secular Sex: Elizabeth Barrett's A Drama of Exile and Jean Ingelow's A Story of Doom

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LIKE EARLIER LONG POEMS IN BIBLICAL SYMBOLISM BY BRITISH WOMEN (FOR example, Elizabeth Smith's The Brethren: A Poem in Four Books of 1787 and Barrett's own The Seraphim of 1838), (1) Elizabeth Barrett's A Drama of Exile tells a contemporary story in mythological form. (2) In contrast to later writings by Christina Rossetti (Face of the Deep, for example), (3) or Alice Meynell ("Christ in the Universe"), (4) but in this respect like Jean Ingelow's epic retelling of the episode of Noah in A Story of Doom, (5) Elizabeth Barrett's poem has nothing to do with religion in any sense that would be understood by a literal believer: the poem's meanings do not involve belief in the actual existence of its supernatural characters. Instead, its meanings involve two very real sorts of things, both of them quite historical. (6) The more obvious meaning is its critical treatment of gender, using the story of Eve to deny the patriarchal myth of female inferiority; (7) this gender theme is the core of the poem's social meanings. A more complex frame of the poem's meanings concerns hermeneutics, or the philosophy of interpretation. Consistently with the biblical criticism that arose in France in the eighteenth century, went to England and Germany, and became the Higher Criticism, Elizabeth Barrett writes a poem whose topics and contentions include the mental and cultural acts of interpretation--A Drama of Exile and Ingelow's A Story of Doom are about the interpretative acts which they (and their genres) perform in social and personal frames of reference and not only in the domain of literary simulations.

In 1842, just two years before the first publication of A Drama of Exile, Barrett published in The Athenaeum a series of essays on the patristic writers, (8) dismissing their theology and their authority, but arguing learnedly about their poetry, principally from a philological point of view: Barrett is determined "by no means to recognize a hierarchy, whether in the Church or in literature"; "To these 'Fathers,' as we call them filially, with heads turned away, we owe more reverence for the grayness of their beards than theological gratitude.... The fact is ... remarkable--how any body of Christian men can profess to derive their opinions from 'the opinions of the Fathers.'" (9) Barrett writes that she is interested in their theme of "love, and love is much"; but "we rather distrust them as commentators, and utterly refuse them the reverence of our souls" (p. 514). Patristic exegesis (what she calls "fatherly opinions") is important to both of the main themes of A Drama of Exile--in terms of gender, the law of the Father is repudiated for the love of the Mother; and in terms of the hermeneutic theme, the historical relativity and multiplicity of interpretations (rather than the dogma of the Church Fathers) calls all doctrines into question, as belief-systems are shown to be ephemeral human products and not eternal truths.

In its rewriting of the story of the exile from Eden, Barrett's poem goes further than earlier poems by women on this topic. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), Aemilia Lanyer gives to the wife of Pontius Pilate a speech denying the exclusive guilt of Eve for the crime that brought exile from paradise. (10) Superimposing the Edenic myth over the story of the trial of Jesus Christ, Lanyer makes it clear that her theme is the moral and social problem encoded in the Genesis myth and its male exegetical history. But in A Drama of Exile, Barrett goes further: here, Eve positively embraces the mortal life of the body outside the walls of the garden, outside the fatherly law. (11) Here, motherhood, incarnation, and the physical beauty of art all represent a positive preference for the tragically brief but embodied life, heavy with mortality ("the thought of death being always imminent, / Immovable and dreadful in your life" [ll. 1451-52]); (12) but that embodied life becomes beautiful in its momentary fusions of bodily sense, and feeling, and mind--more beautiful far, according to Barrett's Eve, than the dualizing patristic myths that beggared the body to imperialize and legislate the soul. …