"Hardly Shall I Tell My Joys and Sorrows": Robert Browning's Engagement with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poetics

By Martens, Britta | Victorian Poetry, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

"Hardly Shall I Tell My Joys and Sorrows": Robert Browning's Engagement with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poetics


Martens, Britta, Victorian Poetry


In 1845, WHEN ROBERT BROWNING BEGAN HIS CORRESPONDENCE WITH Elizabeth Barrett (EBB), he was writing plays and dramatic monologues. He had at last developed his own, original style. However, the path he had taken was diametrically opposed to contemporary taste, which expected a lyrical poem to be the expression of the poet's personal emotions and thoughts. EBB wrote in this tradition, and in the preface to her critically acclaimed Poems of 1844, she had stressed her increasing commitment to the self-expressive mode. (1) It was to voice his admiration for this collection that Browning wrote his first letter to her.

While the courtship correspondence has long been recognized as the private locus for the couple's dialogue on their respective poetic styles, critics have failed to discern the pursuit by Browning of the same "dialogue" within a number of his own poems. The exception to this rule is his first publication after the marriage in 1846, Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850), which is read as influenced by EBB's religious views. (2) Attention to this text has tended to eclipse the relation between her poetry and Browning's next publication, Men and Women (1855). The purpose of this article is to consider three poems from this collection which are informed by the confrontation between Browning's commitment to impersonal poetry and EBB's self-expressive lyric: "One Word More," which is dedicated to her, and two other poems in Browning's own voice, "The Guardian-Angel" and "Old Pictures in Florence." (3) By analyzing these poems in the light of exchanges from the correspondence, I will seek to show how Browning experiments with EBB's poetics, embedding indications for the alert reader of an ongoing review of his own poetic style and, ultimately, a refusal to adopt a mode that is uncongenial to his artistic genius. This refusal is paradoxically characterized by the effacement of the poet's self from the text even in poems in propria persona. (4) It is my contention that in these poems Browning displays a greater awareness than in the correspondence of the problems which the concept of self-expressive art poses for him.

As Daniel Karlin remarks, it is clear from Browning's very first letter, with its equation of poet and poem in the phrase "I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart--and I love you too," that he appreciated EBB's poems less as works of art than as pure expressions of personality. (5) In his second letter, he defined her in terms which anticipate his concept of the self-expressive "subjective poet" in the 1852 "Essay on Shelley," whereas he described himself as an inferior, dramatic "objective poet" eager to emulate her example:

For you do what I always wanted, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time-you speak out, you,--I only make men & women speak,-give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me: but I am going to try.

(January 13, 1845; Correspondence, 10:22)

Browning assumes here that poetry can, at least in EBB's case, act as a quasitransparent means of self-expression, while he considers himself as yet unable to reveal his self in his poetry:

What I have printed gives no knowledge of me--it evidences abilities of various kinds, if you will,--and a dramatic sympathy with certain modifications of passion ... that I think: but I never have begun, even, what I hope I was born to begin and end,--"R.B. a poem."

(February 11, 1845; Correspondence, 10:69)

He makes again the simplifying equation of poet and poem. This contrasts with the more complex notion of language as an obstacle to the articulation of ideas found in several poems. (6) It is expressed in such distinctly physical metaphors for language as the comparison of developing a new poetic discourse with welding armor in Sordello (2.568-601). (7)

Since Browning has made EBB's confident use of personal voice his ideal, dissatisfaction with his own impersonal style is a logical consequence:

My poetry is far from the "completest expression of my being"--I Hate to refer to it, or I could tell you why, wherefore, . …

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