Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"In Silence like to Death": Elizabeth Barrett's Sonnet Turn

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"In Silence like to Death": Elizabeth Barrett's Sonnet Turn

Article excerpt

And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here-- the sonnet.

--Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1)

ALTHOUGH ELIZABETH BARRETT BEGAN PUBLISHING POETRY AS EARLY AS 1820 she did not print her first three sonnets until 1838. Her 1844 collection, on the other hand, included 28 sonnets, and in 1850 she printed 50 sonnets. As I will demonstrate, this progressive turn toward the sonnet--a highly compressed, constrained form-reflects Barrett's growing investment in silence both as inhibitor and sustainer of her art.

Devastated by speechlessness after her brother drowned in 1840, convinced that "this long silence, embracing the most afflictive time of [her] whole life" could be neither poetically verbalized nor transcended, she began to question the redemptive model of lyric poetry to which she had previously subscribed. (2) The sonnet's brevity and reticence lent "a slow arm of sweet compression" to Barrett's work, providing her with a formal metaphor for silence and grief. (3) With her turn to the sonnet in 1844, Barrett addressed both her unspeakable sadness and also the absence of women's voices in the British lyric tradition. To do so, she responded to the sonnet tradition primarily in the context of two approaches: the amatory model according to which poets drew from the absence or unattainability of a beloved addressee a source of lyrical potency, and, alternatively, the Wordsworthian version (itself a recasting of Milton), whereby the unresponsiveness of nature or of a contemplated other is converted into the mind 's encounter with the sublime. (4)

Becoming for her, as it did for almost every major poet of the nineteenth century, a synecdoche for lyric poetry in general, the sonnet thus put Barrett into dialogue with her most prolific Romantic precursor in the field--a man who, perhaps not uncoincidentally, had lost his own brother to drowning. (5) The result was a collision between poetic modes. Rather than adopting Wordsworth's revisionary sonnet poetics as a means of resolving her preoccupation with an unutterable grief, Barrett put forth a competing model that re-evaluated the Wordsworthian sublime. Unlike Wordsworth, Barrett enlisted a non-recuperative version of negativity as a framework for her sonnets, and as a key to her understanding of lyric poetry in general. (6) By critiquing Wordsworth, Barrett wrote herself into the male lyric tradition; in so doing, she confronted the "silence of [her] womanhood"--a silence ultimately interchangeable, I will argue, both with her feminized grief and with the generative limits of poetry itself (Sonnet XIII , 1. 9).

After the death of Barrett's brother, her view of lyric poetry was radically called into question. (7) Her letters from this period chart, as Angela Leighton has remarked, "how heavy a burden of feeling the idea of silence carries." (8) Eleven years after the incident, Barrett wrote, "There is only one event in my life which never loses its bitterness; which comes back on me like a retreating wave, going and coming again, which was and is my grief." (9) Explaining that "one stroke ended [her] youth," Barrett entreated her correspondents to "say no more," to avoid speaking of her grief: "Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Home; and for the rest, you see that there is nothing to say. 'It is a blank, my lord."' (10)

Barrett's remarkable inability to verbalize her grief (she wrote to Mary Russell Mitford, "I cannot write of these things--you see I cannot--I cannot write or speak--I never have spoken--not one word--not to Papa--never named that name anymore") creates a silence that appears to be, in Leighton's words, "imaginatively unredeemable." (11) Leighton speculates, "It is perhaps a characteristic of the female imagination to desire that silence which is an abdication of all poetic power, rather than a culmination of it" (p. …

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