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Subscriber Only. Hit Factories: The sound of young industrial Britain. Rise of the Ultra Runners: Long-distance journey to the centre of the self. Not Working: What ails our labour markets and how to fix them. Most Read in Culture. Short stories. Deus Absconditus, a short story by Mary Costello. Transatlantic Railroad, a short story by Mary M Burke. Locksmiths, a short story by Wendy Erskine. This new version was an enormous improvement over the translation that had been published in ; it is faithful to the original without being pedantic and is expressed in lively, idiomatic English.
The two volumes were fairly well received in England, where the reviewers praised her for the depth of her intellect, the earnestness of her thought, and the "pathetic beauty" of the romantic ballads. They believed, however, that Mrs. Browning's poetry still retained some of the deficiencies of her earlier books, such as diffuseness, obscure language, and inappropriate imagery. Browning had developed a passionate interest in Italian politics; during her first year in Italy she had written "A Meditation in Tuscany" and sent it to Blackwood's.
The editor had declined it and returned the manuscript to her, and it became the first part of Casa Guidi Windows The poem deals with political events as seen by the poet from the windows of Casa Guidi, the great stone palace in Florence where the Brownings had an apartment. In the newly elected Pope Pius IX had granted amnesty to prisoners who had fought for Italian liberty, initiated a program looking forward to a more democratic form of government for the Papal State, and carried out a number of other reforms so that it looked as though he were heading toward the leadership of a league for a free Italy.
Progressive measures had also been instituted in Tuscany by Grand Duke Leopold II, who arranged for a representative form of government and allowed the people to have a free press and to form their own civic guard. The first half of Casa Guidi Windows had been written when Mrs. Browning was filled with enthusiasm and was hopeful that the newly awakened liberal movements were moving toward the unification and freedom of the Italian states. In the second half of the poem she voices her disillusionment and her bitter disappointment that liberalism had been crushed almost everywhere in Italy.
Pope Pius had fled in disguise from the Vatican in the face of agitation for a republican government and had taken refuge at Gaeta under the protection of the king of Naples. Leopold, whom Mrs. Browning had at first admired, had proved to be a coward; and, rather than agree to the formation of a constituent assembly of the Italian states in Rome, he had left his Florentine palace and joined the exiled pope in Gaeta.
Several months later the Austrian troops had occupied Florence, and Leopold had returned under their protection. In her poem Mrs. Browning expresses her disappointment with the pope, the grand duke, the English government for its failure to intervene on the side of the Italian patriots, and the Florentines themselves because they had been unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices. By the middle of the liberal impulses had been crushed; except for Piedmont all the Italian states were under the domination of Austria and the papacy. For the next ten years there were no more uprisings or wars, and in the absence of stirring political events Mrs.
Browning began the composition of a completely different kind of poem from anything she had written up to then. Her poem would fill a volume when it was finished, she said; it was the romance she had been "hankering after so long, written in blank verse, in the autobiographical form. In the dedication to her lifelong friend and benefactor John Kenyon she wrote that it was "the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered. Orphaned at an early age and brought up by an aunt in the western county of Shropshire, the youthful Aurora finds herself in a cultural desert, with no one to share her enthusiasm for literature.
Aurora's description of the kind of education imposed upon her by her conventional aunt illustrates the restricted, anti-intellectual attitudes of the English middle classes toward the upbringing of their daughters. Aurora memorizes the Collects of the Anglican Church, takes lessons in music and dancing, is given some superficial instruction in French, German, history, and geography, and is taught sewing and embroidery.
Not only were young women discouraged from learning Greek and Latin and from reading "controversial" books, but they were denied a university education. Aurora has to seek her education at home, whereas her cousin Romney Leigh is sent to a university. Rebelling against her aunt's narrow regimen, Aurora finds her true life in the world of books. Discovering her father's private library hidden away in the attic, she reads widely in Greek and Latin literature and English poetry and begins to compose verses of her own.
At the age of twenty she rejects a proposal of marriage from Romney Leigh, who asks her to be his wife for the sole reason that he needs her to help him in his philanthropic activities. Women, he tells her, are lacking in the higher imaginative qualities that would enable them to be great writers or artists. Aurora moves away from the rural community which has so stifled her and makes her home in London, where she will be independent and strive for literary success.
By dint of steady application she wins within six or seven years a place for herself in the London literary world. To help support herself she writes articles for encyclopedias and journals, but she finds her chief satisfaction in the publication of her volumes of poetry. The heroine of this novel-poem serves as Mrs.
Browning's mouthpiece when she declares that the most fitting subjects for poetry are to be found in contemporary settings and that a poet should not reject his own times to seek inspiration from earlier civilizations. Aurora, though still in her middle twenties, has already produced books of poetry which are reaching a wide and admiring public.
In contrast to Aurora, who has lived a serene and rather sheltered life, the main figure of the subplot is a pathetic victim of the abuses of society. Marian Erle is the only child of an ignorant and abusive migrant farm worker and a wife cowed into submission by his drunken rages. The girl runs away from her parents in fear of their violence, is rescued from destitution by Romney Leigh, and even receives from him an offer of marriage. As a radical socialist he thus proposes to put into practice his utopian ideal of the destruction of the barriers that separate the rich from the poor and the educated from the ignorant.
The marriage, however, does not take place, for Marian is treacherously spirited away from England by a woman who believes herself to be in love with Romney. Marian is taken to a house of ill fame in Paris, where she is drugged and sexually assaulted. As a result of this act of violence she becomes pregnant and after much ill-treatment gives birth to a son. After nine years in London Aurora suddenly gives up her apartment and establishes a new home for herself in a villa in Florence.
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On the way she stops in Paris, where she encounters Marian and hears her story; she takes Marian and the baby to Florence with her. A few months after her arrival Aurora is asked once again by Romney to be his wife. This time, however, he is blind and much humbled by his misfortunes. Leigh Hall, which he had converted into a utopian community, had been set on fire and destroyed by the very people whom he had been aiding. At the time of the fire he had been struck on the forehead and blinded by a falling beam.
Romney now sadly admits that doctrinaire socialism is a failure, for the people will rebel against any restrictions and reforms imposed upon them. Aurora says that she too has been wrong in her proud independence and her belief that her life could be complete without the companionship of a loved one. They pledge themselves to each other and look forward to a life of shared responsibilities.
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In the meanwhile Marian has told them that she will never marry and that when her child no longer needs her care she will devote herself to helping the "outcast orphans of the world. Browning has dealt with some of the major social problems of her age. In Victorian England an educated woman with unusual talents had almost no opportunity to make use of her skills in a world that was dominated by men. Nevertheless, as the poem shows in the example of its heroine, it was possible for a woman with great energy and sense of purpose to live by herself in London and become renowned on the strength of her own unaided efforts.
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Professional success alone, however, is not sufficient, for nothing can give more meaning to a woman's life than enduring love in marriage. Another theme is Mrs. Browning's distrust of the theories of contemporary French socialists, such as Charles Fourier, who advocated the division of society into communistic units. She believed that in the kind of state envisioned by the radical socialists there would be no place for artists and poets. Nothing stirred up more controversy than her frank treatment of the plight of "the fallen woman"—a subject that was considered by the Victorian public to be outside the purview of the serious novelist or poet.
In mid-nineteenth-century England standards of sexual conduct were so rigid that any woman who bore a child out of wedlock, even if she had been a victim of male aggression, was shunned by "respectable" people and condemned to a life of penance and mortification. Eighteenth-century readers had allowed their novelists more freedom to depict sexual irregularities, but the great Victorian novelists dealt obliquely, or not at all, with such subjects. One of Mrs. Browning's most fundamental convictions was that sexual activity outside of marriage was immoral, but she believed that society should be more compassionate in its treatment of women who had been victims of seduction or sexual attacks.
It is not surprising that the story of Marian Erle shocked a number of women readers, some of whom were reported to have said that the reading of Aurora Leigh had endangered their morals. Most of the Brownings' literary friends were delighted with the poem and accorded it the highest praise; Swinburne, Leigh Hunt , Walter Savage Landor , Ruskin, and the Rossetti brothers all spoke of it with unrestrained enthusiasm. From a commercial point of view it proved to be by far the most successful of Mrs.
Browning's works; by , twenty-eight years after its first publication, it had gone through nineteen editions. Despite its great popularity with other poets and with the general public, it found little favor with professional reviewers.
Most were in agreement that the poem was too long and lacking in coherence, that the characterization was weak, that the plot was melodramatic and implausible, that the imagery was often inappropriate and discordant, and that some of the material was so vulgar that it offended good taste. One reviewer declared that the coarseness of its language made Mrs. Browning's book "almost a closed volume for her own sex.
Two years after the publication of Aurora Leigh Mrs. Browning again became absorbed in current political events as the Italians, after a decade of truce, began once more their struggle for independence and unity. Then early in July Napoleon surprised and bitterly disappointed the Italians by agreeing at Villafranca to an armistice which would leave Venice under the domination of Austria. In response to these events Mrs. Browning's Poems before Congress was published in the spring of ; but by the time the volume appeared the title was misleading, for the congress of the leading powers that was to have been held in January had been indefinitely postponed.
Seven of the eight poems deal with Italian politics, while the other, "A Curse for a Nation," is an antislavery poem that had earlier been published in an abolitionist journal in Boston. Although Mrs. Browning felt betrayed when she first heard of the truce initiated by the emperor whom she had long admired, she expressed her continuing faith in him in two of the poems, "A Tale of Villafranca" and "Napoleon III in Italy. In "Italy and the World" Mrs. Browning prophesies that the states of central Italy in revolt against Austria will join Piedmont and Lombardy to form a united and independent kingdom, but the triumphant conclusion of the Italian cause will owe nothing to the English government, which she berates for its failure to provide military aid.
The notices in the leading English journals were uniformly unfavorable toward the volume, which they found offensive because of its strident tone and anti-British bias. In the spring of Mrs. Browning continued to write poems on the Italian situation, which to her great delight appeared to be moving toward a victorious outcome.
Central and northern Italy had become a united kingdom under the leadership of Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont and his prime minister, Count Cavour. The theme of "King Victor Emmanuel Entering Florence, April, " is the great joy of the people of Tuscany and their expressions of gratitude toward the king for the part he has played in helping them to their freedom.
The tone of "Summing up in Italy," however, is bitter; here Mrs. Browning utters her fears that although the great powers of Europe will ratify the creation of the new kingdom of Italy, they will discredit its chief architects. Besides her political poems, at this time she wrote " A Musical Instrument ," which has become one of her best-known poems.
Based on the myth of Pan and Syrinx, the verses exemplify the doctrine that the true poet is destined to suffer much hardship and pain in the practice of his art. Despite her extreme frailty Mrs. Browning followed with feverish excitement the rapidly unfolding events of the winter of The peoples of Sicily, Naples, and the States of the Church had voted for annexation with Victor Emmanuel's new kingdom.
With most of the Italian states united, a national parliament met at Turin early in Browning felt that her faith in the Italian leaders had been justified. She had been in poor health for several years, suffering from weakness of the lungs and heart, and her obsession with Italian politics further weakened her nervous system. The final blow, which prostrated her emotionally and physically, was the unexpected and premature death on 6 June of Count Cavour, the great patriot who had been chiefly responsible for bringing the disparate states into a unified and independent kingdom.
Then on 20 June she was stricken with a severe cold, cough, and sore throat, and was confined to her bed; she died in Browning's arms early in the morning of 29 June. Within a month Browning left Florence with his son to make his permanent home in London. The many journals which reported Mrs. Browning's untimely death all spoke of her as the greatest woman poet in English literature. The highly respected Edinburgh Review expressed the prevailing view when it said that she had no equal in the literary history of any country: "Such a combination of the finest genius and the choicest results of cultivation and wide-ranging studies has never been seen before in any woman.
A year after her death Browning collected and arranged for publication her Last Poems , which included a number of translations from Greek and Latin poetry, personal lyrics, and poems on Italian politics. In the same year the fifth edition of her Poems was published. Both works were warmly received by the leading literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic as they reviewed her poetic career from its beginning and concluded that her gifts had been of the highest order. Browning' Aurora Leigh were the two greatest poems of the age and that the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" were the finest love poems in English: "Shakespeare's sonnets, beautiful as they are, cannot be compared with them, and Petrarch's seem commonplace beside them.
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Browning's death her poetry began to lose much of the appeal it had held for readers during her lifetime. The consensus of late-Victorian critics was that much of her writing would be forgotten in another generation but that she would be remembered for " The Cry of the Children ," a few of the romantic ballads such as "Isobel's Child" and "Bertha in the Lane," and most of all for the "Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Browning's poetry was no longer being read and especially that Aurora Leigh had been forgotten. She urged her readers to take a fresh look at the poem, which she admired for its "speed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence. Woolf wrote, "was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.
Woolf's view, the heroine of the poem," "with her passionate interest in social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age. Woolf's enthusiasm for Aurora Leigh , the poem continued to be ignored by the general public and by scholars until the recent advent of feminist criticism. None of Mrs. Browning's poems has received more attention from feminist critics than Aurora Leigh , since its theme is one that especially concerns them: the difficulties that a woman must overcome if she is to achieve independence in a world mainly controlled by men.
In her Literary Women Ellen Moers writes that Aurora Leigh is the great epic poem of the age; it is "the epic poem of the literary woman herself. Browning's literary reputation will remain secure with future critics who view her work from a feminist perspective. One may also prophesy that for the general public the "Sonnets from the Portuguese," despite some Victorian quaintness of imagery, will continue to hold their place among the most-admired love poems of world literature.
Prose Home Harriet Blog. Visit Home Events Exhibitions Library. Newsletter Subscribe Give. Poetry Foundation. Back to Previous. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Related Content. Podcasts Sonnets from the Portuguese How do I love thee? Let me count the ways Sonnets from the Portuguese How do I love thee? More About this Poet. Region: England. Poems by This Poet Related Bibliography. The Cry of the Children. The Lady's Yes. A Man's Requirements. Mother and Poet. A Musical Instrument.
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My Heart and I. Only a Curl. Past and Future. Sonnets from the Portuguese If thou must love me, let it be for nought. Sonnets from the Portuguese I lived with visions for my company. Sonnets from the Portuguese My letters! Sonnets from the Portuguese If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange. Sonnets from the Portuguese First time he kissed me, he but only kissed. Sonnets from the Portuguese How do I love thee? Sonnets from the Portuguese Beloved, thou has brought me many flowers.
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