- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This year, in EBB criticism, the politics of race, empire, and nation feature prominently, helping to counter the relative absence of "racial issues" in the work by the new wave of Victorian poetry scholars that Isobel Armstrong reflects on in her playful and probing article, "The Victorian Poetry Party" (VP 42 : 9-27). Interest in EBB's generic experimentations with the ballad, the dramatic monologue, the sonnet, and Victorian sage discourse also remains very strong. There is new work on her relationship to the changing canon of Victorian poetry; on Last Poems, her Italian contexts, and her relation to the figure of the poetess; on her sonnets "To George Sand" and her response to the French novelist Eugène Sue; and on the religious contexts of A Drama of Exile and Aurora Leigh. Theories of performativity form still another thread, aptly so in light of postmodern performance art inspired by Sonnets from the Portuguese. A full-length study of EBB's poetry in conjunction with Robert Browning's poetry amplifies and calls in question representations of their artistic relationship in two new biographies of Robert Browning, while a newly published reminiscence of EBB nicely complements an ample new anthology of materials on nineteenth-century responses to the Brownings. Other work covered in this review deals with her impact on Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot, the forgeries of her works, and her mythic role in Jamaican tourism today.
Joseph Bristow's "Whether 'Victorian' Poetry: A Genre and Its Period" (VP 42 : 81-109) offers an instructive starting point because he turns to the example of EBB's erasure from literary histories to interrogate the broader epistemic formations associated with "Victorian" and "Victorianism." Unlike the "literary-historical" formations of "Romanticism" and "the Renaissance," the "monarchical moniker" of Victorianism has never transmuted into a topic of meta-critical theoretical inquiry; it is "the literary-period-designator-that-does-not-think," he wittily observes (pp. 86-88). Bristow's wide-ranging analysis of late nineteeth-century uses of "Victorian" includes a detailed consideration of Victorian Poets (1875)by Edmund Clarence Stedman. This is of particular relevance to EBB because Bristow, like Tricia Lootens in Lost Saints (1996), holds Stedman partly responsible for the idolatry that transformed the period's most influential woman poet into an angel in Robert Browning's house (p. 98)—although one might argue that later studies, such as Margaret Oliphant's The Victorian Age of English Literature (1892) and Hugh Walker's The Literature of the Victorian Era (1910) contributed more to EBB's metamorphosis into a minor woman poet than Stedman's. Bristow argues, provocatively, [End Page 335] that the term "Victorian" has "little or no pertinence to the writings" of EBB because her poetry belongs to a period in which it still had "little or no meaning" (p. 97). The example of her ballads, in particular, shows how the "unhelpful associations" of "Victorian" and period "divisions between 'Romantic' and 'Victorian'" have "clouded scholars' understanding of how specific poetic genres circulated" in the nineteenth century (p. 90). Noting earlier work reassessing EBB's ballads, he expands this to "consider more generally the larger poetic community in which this distinctly social genre thrived" (p. 102). This argument is developed through an insightful analysis of "The Poet's Vow" in the context of the "liberal and radical poets" associated with the New Monthly Magazine, in which the poem first appeared (p. 102).
The social and political dimensions of EBB's poetry, together with its formal and generic features, are also integral to E. Warwick Slinn's Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language (2003), which includes as Chapter Three, "The Mark as Matrix: Subject(ion) and Agency in Barrett Browning's 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'" (pp. 56-89). The critical methodology that frames this timely and cogent book is of particular value to EBB scholars because Slinn so adeptly combines poetics with politics, calling for renewed attention to "the intensive use of language" in Victorian poetry (p. 1), while nevertheless resisting capitulation to a narrow neoformalism. Arguing for the need to "de-polarize" text and context, he...