A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirty-three
THE EARLY VICTORIANS

(3) MRS. BROWNING AND OTHERS

THE typically Victorian poets took themselves very seriously. Their poetry was not to be merely the expression of their own personal feelings, their delight in their art as such. They were bards with a message for their age and for humanity. Tennyson was worried all his later life by the consciousness that he was expected to write a great poem "doctrinal to a nation." But the impulse came too much from without, from the critics, not as with Milton from the inner impulse of his own soul. Browning, too, tells us the tale of Sordello, so far as we can follow it, and of Paracelsus, with an ethical purpose. It is as against this bent in their poetry that one must understand the insistence of the pre-Raphaelites, as Swinburne, on the doctrine of "art for art." It was in great measure a demand for sincerity, since the danger of setting out to convey a message is that the poet endeavours to express what he more or less consciously thinks he ought to feel rather than what he does feel; and if he is a great poet, the final effect of a Paradise Lost may be not quite that which the poet set out to produce.

Elizabeth Barrett ( 1806-1861), who became Elizabeth Barrett Browning, shared to the full this high ideal of the poet and his mission. Descended from a line of wealthy, slave-owning Jamaica traders in rum and tobacco, herself the daughter of one of these in whom the sense of power and will to command had hardened into a monomania, Elizabeth's early life had been one of acute sensibility which a series of shocks and bereavements deepened into illness partly real, partly hysterical, imaginary, cultivated as an art, a pattern of her life to herself. What she needed was not a darkened room, an overshadowing father, a doctor feeling her pulse and graduating thereby her doses of morphine but, what she got at last in Robert Browning, a healer who would say to her, "Take up your bed and walk."

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