Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Alfred Tennyson on Napoleon III: The Hero-Poet and Carlylean Heroics

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Alfred Tennyson on Napoleon III: The Hero-Poet and Carlylean Heroics

Article excerpt

   The Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will,
   According to the world he finds himself born into. I confess, I
   have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of
   men. The Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas,
   would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic
   Warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too. I
   fancy there is in him the Politician, the Thinker, Legislator,
   Philosopher;--in one or the other degree, he could have been, he is
   all these. (1)

Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History

Like the Hero-Poet that Carlyle describes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) undertakes a heroic mission in the last volume of poems published in her lifetime, Poems before Congress (PBC), (2) a volume supporting the Italian Risorgimento. In authoring these poems, knowing they would be controversial, (3) she assumes the persona of a Hero-Poet and "Heroic warrior," who is also a "Politician ... Thinker, Legislator, Philosopher." When PBC was published in 1860, EBB was at the height of her fame and unafraid of conflict, or of courting the ire of her readers, in the pursuit of justice and liberty, fervently supporting the cause she believed in. Carlyle had described Napoleon I in this way: "Napoleon had a sincerity.... [I]n Practice: he, as every man that can be great, or have victory in this world, sees, through all entanglements, the practical heart of the matter; drives straight towards that" (p. 303). Committed to staying informed on European politics, EBB regularly read periodicals and newspapers, (4) and when it seemed time for her to act, she saw and drove straight toward the practical heart of the matter: she wrote poems not only in support of the Risorgimento, but also of Napoleon III's intervention in Italy. In writing the heroic warrior, she became one as well.

PBC begins with "Napoleon III in Italy," an ode to the French Emperor, a figure held in contempt and feared by many in England from the time of his coup d'etat in 1852, and through (and beyond) his intervention in Italian affairs in 1859. Because the first poem in PBC is, at quick glance, a vigorous ode to the French Emperor, EBB was accused of hero worship (in this case and many others). While she was given to bold, blatant, even blind worship of heroes, it is crucial to remember that her motivation as a poet, and a person, was informed by her lifelong commitment to principles of liberty. From her early years until her death, she worshipped good causes, and she became a hero worshipper as part of the process of commitment. (5) Whoever lent himself to the right cause might become worthy of her praise--tespite other personal, professional, or political misdeeds. In this essay I want to reframe her political and poetical conflation of heroes and causes--the right causes with the heroes who enabled those causes to succeed--by reconsidering the longstanding critical vilification of her hero-worship within the context of Carlyle's notions of the heroic. (6) Carlylean concepts of the hero had great importance in the Victorian period and, as I point out below, at least one of EBB's correspondents, Robert Bulwer Lytton, used Carlyle's principles both to praise and to criticize what she attempted in the 1860 volume. Comparing EBB's treatment of Napoleon III to that of Alfred Tennyson, the other most widely recognized poet in England at this time and Poet Laureate since 1850, provides another illuminating context for her work. Tennyson reacted to Napoleon III's coup in 1852 (as did Coventry Patmore--another prominent figure of the time) and to his intervention in Italy in 1859 quite differently than EBB did. Juxtaposing EBB's assessments against Tennyson's clearly defined, opposing political/poetic reactions to Napoleon III clarifies what she attempts in the volume--poetically, politically, and even heroically.

On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon, President of the French Republic, staged a successful coup d'etat--on the 47th anniversary, to the day, of his uncle Napoleon I's assumption of the title Emperor of France, and the 46th anniversary of Napoleon I's famous victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. …

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