Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love

By Houston, Natalie M. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love


Houston, Natalie M., Studies in the Literary Imagination


The title of this essay should be read in two ways: as both Victorian and contemporary critics have acknowledged, both Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and George Meredith's Modern Love (1862) has a powerful emotional effect on readers. This emotional power seems to derive from authentic human experiences and feelings, a power that in Victorian criticism often was linked to the person of the writer: Barrett Browning's sequence was said to contain "genuine utterances right from her own `brain-lit heart'" (Rev. of Poems, qtd. in Donaldson 49), and Meredith was said to be "genuinely drawing from his own resources of observation and reflection" in Modern Love (Rev. of Modern Love 103). Many more recent accounts also derive some interpretive material from the life stories of these two poets. Yet both of these works also make it clear that the effect of authenticity is constructed in the poetic text. For a Victorian poet adopting the older poetic form of the amatory sonnet sequence, such a performance or affectation of authenticity served a particular purpose within Victorian culture, just as the conceits of Renaissance sonnets can be traced to their function within elite social hierarchies. Examining Victorian poetic theory about the sonnet form provides an important context for understanding what was at stake in the Victorian revival and reworking of the amatory sonnet sequence.

"Authenticity" is a useful term for probing the revisionary project in both works, precisely because it is a key concept both in Victorian theories about the sonnet and in Victorian culture more generally. Victorian writers took up questions about authenticity in a variety of contexts, including the dramatic monologue's focus on language, developments in the new science of psychology, and sensation fiction's dramatization of concerns about mistaken, fraudulent, or stolen identity. Victorian writings about the sonnet form reveal that the tension between sincerity and artifice (or authenticity and performance) made the sonnet a kind of microcosm for debating the function of poetry in modern life: How could lyric poetry best represent the issues and feelings of modern men and women? While Robert Browning experimented with poetic form and Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites triangulated their critiques of the modern age with the medieval period, many other Victorian poets worked to redefine the old, rule-bound form of the sonnet and adapt it to new purposes.

Both the Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love have frequently been read as more or less directly revealing their authors' life stories. The narrative of the Brownings' storybook romance eventually overshadowed Barrett Browning's poetic career in late-Victorian accounts of her life and work, and Meredith's more fractured marital career was also seen as inspiring his own series of sonnets. But rather than seeing these works or their writers as simply the objects of biographically motivated criticism, I want to investigate the ways in which these sequences self-consciously anticipate and negotiate such an assumption of truthful reality by repeatedly demonstrating that authenticity in a sonnet sequence is always constructed. Although these works have often been thought of as opposing descriptions of the importance or possibility of Victorian romantic love, what I want to suggest here is that both Barrett Browning and Meredith self-consciously use the sonnet form to represent the status of Victorian (modern) love.

Although it has not traditionally been thought of as an important Victorian poetic form, the sonnet was widely used by a variety of writers throughout the nineteenth century. At least seventeen anthologies devoted exclusively to the sonnet were published in Britain, and many others included special sections of favorite sonnets. In addition to the critical introductions included in many of these anthologies, a large number of reviews and critical essays in general periodicals like the Athenaeum, Contemporary Review, Eclectic Review, and Quarterly Review debated rules for the sonnet's form and promulgated the basic facts of its long history. …

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