Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Telling It Slant: Promethean, Whig, and Dissenting Politics in Elizabeth Barrett's Poetry of the 1830s

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Telling It Slant: Promethean, Whig, and Dissenting Politics in Elizabeth Barrett's Poetry of the 1830s

Article excerpt

Since the 1970s and the start of the process of recovering Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the "servants' quarters" of the "mansion" of Literature where, in Virginia Woolf's famous description, the poet "bangs the crockery around and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of a knife," (1) critics have reconsidered EBB and her works from a number of illuminating and persuasive critical positions. Indeed, we are now coming to recognize EBB as important for our understanding of areas as diverse as the experiences of the nineteenth-century woman writer, developments in Romantic and Victorian poetic aesthetics, and the construction of the nineteenth-century vates figure. "How shall we re-read thee? Let me count the ways."

One area of inquiry which has been receiving increased critical attention of late is EBB's insightful, challenging, and sometimes controversial engagement with nineteenth-century European politics. (2) Her later works--Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Aurora Leigh (1856), and Poems before Congress (1861)--have been a key focus of this inquiry, but as I have argued elsewhere (Avery and Stott, pp. 33-64), EBB was politically engaged from a very early age. Like her father and her eldest brother, she was a fervent supporter of the Whigs, the party of opposition whose political philosophy had at its heart a fundamental concern with the legal, civil, and religious rights of the individual--rights for which EBB herself would spend most of her life fighting. Certainly it is possible to read her earliest writings in this context. The Battle of Marathon (1820), for example, deals explicitly with the emergence of the notion of democracy and political egalitarianism, while An Essay on Mind (1826) and the first poems which EBB published in The New Monthly Magazine and The Globe and Traveller show the poet interrogating the contemporary Greek war of independence against Turkey. (3) It is hardly surprising, then, that EBB's mother would accuse her daughter--in striking contrast to the mythologized image of the sickly poet--of suffering from "the infection of politics." (4)

In this essay, I want to explore how, in her writings of the 1830s, EBB built upon her earlier political interests and to suggest how the poetry published in her key volumes of that decade--Prometheus Bound, and Miscellaneous Poems (1833) and The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838)--forms an important bridge between her politically inspired verse of the 1820s and the far more overt and combative engagement with contemporary politics in her poetry of the 1840s and 1850s. This is not to suggest, however, that all of her writings can be slotted into some simple, developmental trajectory whereby she becomes increasingly explicit in her treatment of politics throughout her career. Indeed, it is specifically in the 1830s that such an argument would break down. For here, rather than pushing the overt political engagements of the 1820s further, EBB appears to withdraw somewhat from direct commentary upon political issues in her poetry and turns instead to large mythic narratives, landscape poetry, and religious verse. And yet if we read the 1830s poetry alongside EBB's diary, correspondence, and other documentation, it is possible, I argue here, to view it as reflecting, at least covertly, upon some of the key political concerns of the period and as examining those power structures and systems of control that EBB would continue to interrogate throughout her career. As I suggest, then, it is during the 1830s that EBB, the poet who would become renowned for her political outspokenness in subsequent decades, engages in that artistic and rhetorical practice which Emily Dickinson would later describe as "[t]ell[ing] all the truth" but "tell[ing] it slant." (5)

By the opening of the 1830s, the Barrett family was in many ways becoming increasingly insecure. The death of EBB's mother in 1828 had left the family irrevocably shaken, and by 1830 it was becoming apparent that the family fortunes were under threat as the plantations in Jamaica from which the Barrett family money derived began to lose profits rapidly following a drop in sugar prices. …

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