Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Article excerpt

2009 brings a wealth of new information on EBB's later career and works with the publication of her extensive correspondence with Isa Blagden, her closest friend from the early 1850s up to her death in June 1861. This year too is particularly rich in studies that explore EBB's relationships and parallels with other writers, including Shakespeare, Coleridge, Hemans, Landon, Tennyson, Carlyle, Clough, George Eliot, Jean Ingelow, Frederick Douglass, and the Italians patriots Garibaldi and Mazzini. Aurora Leigh features most prominently among works discussed; others include Casa Guidi Windows, Sonnets from the Portuguese, ballads such as "The Poet's Vow" and "A Romance of the Ganges," "A Vision of Poets, "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," "Hiram Power's Greek Slave," "Lord Waiter's Wife," "Mother and Poet," and the previously neglected "Hector in the Garden." Themes range from the politics of childhood, motherhood, slavery, and nations (especially Italian nation-building) to representations of love, EBB's spiritualist and "electric" poetics, religious developments that shaped her poetry, and her engagement with classical literature. Two new editions of EBB's poetry have also appeared: a French translation of Sonnets from the Portuguese and an annotated edition of EBB's selected poems with contextual appendices from Broadview Press.

The most important new scholarly resource for EBB critics and students this year is Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden 1850-61 (2009), co-edited by Philip Kelley and Sandra Donaldson with Associate Editors Scott Lewis, Edward Hagan, and Rita S. Patteson. Of the 196 letters from EBB to Isa Blagden in this meticulously annotated and illustrated collection, 146 are published for the first time, while 22 others present the full texts of letters earlier published only in part (p. xii). Addressed to the friend whom EBB addressed as "My dearest Isa" from 1853 on, these letters are comparable in their intimacy to the poet's correspondence with her sister Arabella Moulton-Barrett, comprehensively edited by Scott Lewis in The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella (2002). In their literary range and interest, they provide a counterpart to EBB's extensive correspondence with her closest friend before her marriage, Mary Russell Mitford, published by Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan in 1983, and re-issued in the volumes of The Brownings' Correspondence that have thus far appeared. The Isa letters, however, reveal dimensions of EBB in her maturity that remain largely or partially invisible in these earlier bodies of correspondence, in part because Isa moved in the relatively liberal artistic and political continental contexts that shaped EBB's vision and aesthetic practice after her marriage and move to Italy. As the natural, Calcutta-born daughter of an Englishman and a Eurasian mother, Isa was also shaped by a relatively unconventional background, aspects of it investigated for the first time in the biographical sketch published in Appendix I of Volume 16 of The Brownings' Correspondence (see the 2008 "Year's Work"). The "Introduction" to Florentine Friends and the texts of the letters brings further details about Isa, an interesting artist in her own right, and her relationship with the Brownings: her love of literature and eclectic reading; her early publications in The English Woman's Journal and her first novel Agnes Tremorne (critiqued in frank and vigorous detail by EBB); her passion like EBB's for Italian Risorgimento politics; and the interest in spiritualism she shared with the poet.

The letters themselves speak to all of these subjects, casting much new light on many works in EBB's two late collections Poems before Congress (1860) and Last Poems (1862), such as "A Curse for a Nation," "Mother and Poet," and "A Musical Instrument," as well as Aurora Leigh. Although in the case of Aurora Leigh, some of the most relevant passages in the letters to Isa have earlier appeared in Frederic G. …

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