Academic journal article Cithara

"A Little Taller Than Homer": Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Hector in the Garden"

Academic journal article Cithara

"A Little Taller Than Homer": Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Hector in the Garden"

Article excerpt

Upon a first reading, "Hector in the Garden" seems nothing more than a charming sentimental reminiscence about a bed of flowers Elizabeth Barrett designed at Hope End when she was a budding Greek scholar of nine. The poem opens with the girl narrator fretting about the lack of heroic possibility in her life: she feels that her nine sheltered country years compare very feebly with the nine years "That the Greeks had used . . . / In besieging Ilium." What this child does possess is a magical power over the forces of Nature, or so she believes: her spell "Rain, rain, come to-morrow," said "long enough," always works, and she sees the sun as her friend and teacher. Wielding such natural power and calling what she does "Canidian," after Horace's Roman witch, she decides to snare some heroic power for herself. With spade and rake she plants a "huge giant" of rather ordinary perennial flowers and grasses in her garden, passively lying clothed in flowery armor and brandishing a sword of lilies: "Call him Hector, son of Priam!" In a thunderstorm, she fancies that the soul of Hector has come to animate his vegetable body, and she is happily terrified by his thunderous wail of sorrow (in good Homeric Greek) and his roaring pulse. The adult narrator concludes that now that the hero "Hector is twice dead," she is the one who is "doing, / Life's heroic ends pursuing." She hopes that she as a poet may be as powerful as Hector was as a warrior.

The poem was written in 1843 or 1844, but not published until October 1846, in Blackwood's Magazine, just a month after her marriage and departure; Barrett must have sent it to Blackwood's just as she was steeling herself to marry Robert Browning and leave her family, including her stern and disapproving father, forever. The Hope End setting of this poem is notable, because the Barrett family's relationship to their former home, lost in Mr. Barrett's financial crisis of 1831 , was complicated. She loved Hope End and hated to leave it, but often reminisced about it in letters and poems, contrasting her idyllic childhood with her prosaic adult life. Her father, however, never got over the shame of losing his dream estate. The family "never mentioned" the "painful subject" of their forced removal in 1832 from "our paradise in Herefordshire, - Hope End" (4 July 1842; Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford II: 3). Nevertheless, Barrett did write about it, publishing "The Deserted Garden" in 1838 and "The Lost Bower" in 1844, both poems that meditate on her loss of particular Hope End scenes.

If "Hector in the Garden" was written in 1843 or 1844, it is interesting that Barrett waited so long to publish it; it appeared in October 1846, a month after she had married and left her father's house for Italy. One wonders whether the reason for delaying publication was that she wanted to have actually fulfilled the promise of its last lines, when she had finally begun to, as the poem says, "wake up and be doing I Life's heroic ends pursuing." The years from 1843 to 1846 were the years when she was deliberately but with difficulty killing off her own past, as the poem concludes: "Though my past is dead as Hector, / And though Hector is twice dead." Perhaps she feared that a poem overtly about the death of Hector, her childhood's fictional idol, might suggest unsettling covert meanings and effects.

Biographers and critics have typically treated "Hector in the Garden" as documentary evidence of Barrett Browning's happy childhood in the gardens and meadows of Hope End (Hayter, Hewlett, Taplin). But surely this poem may signify much more than that. It can certainly be read as a poem about power and control: of human power over Nature, of female power over male, of artistic creation over military might. The little girl with the spade and rake creates an armed warrior out of flowers to prove that she is stronger than he is. The basic kinds of power here are the power of women allied with Nature, the power of women over men, and the supreme power of art. …

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