Publishing and Reading "Our EBB": Editorial Pedagogy, Contemporary Culture, and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"
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Victorian Poetry 44.4 (2006) 487-505

Publishing and Reading "Our EBB":
Editorial Pedagogy, Contemporary Culture, and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"

"This is Living Art": so runs the title of the Armstrong Browning Library's recent bicentennial conference on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.1 Thirty years ago, this claim might have seemed dubious; by now, it is indisputable. The publication of multiple editions of Aurora Leigh; the increasingly wide range of EBB poems included by influential textbooks;2 the appearance of an ambitious annotated critical bibliography and two separate volumes of collected essays on her work;3 and now, for the first time in over one hundred years, the preparation of an extensive scholarly edition:4 all these speak directly to the poet's re-emergence as a central figure for serious students of Victorian poetry. Indeed, the creation of resources for studying EBB seems to have become something of an industry. What remains to be developed, however, are larger critical conversations concerning the impact of such shifts, both within and beyond the Victorian pedagogical canon. What company does Elizabeth Barrett Browning now keep in our curricula, for example? Robert Browning? Felicia Dorothea Hemans or Letitia Elizabeth Landon? Wordsworth? Byron? Christina Rossetti? Parliamentary Blue Books or Thomas Hood? George Meredith, Alexander Smith, and Sidney Dobell—or Augusta Webster? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Thomas Carlyle? Moreover, how might EBB's poetic migrations among courses on Victorian poetry or women's writing and, say, topics classes on the condition of England; nation and empire; Transatlantic studies; ekphrasis; animal rights; or the novel, signal or speak to new critical understandings of her work?5 Part polemic, part reflection, and part history, this article can only gesture toward such discussion; but it does so in a spirit of invitation.6

To begin, then, on a note of warning: marketing EBB studies is one thing; celebrating those studies, as Harold Bloom's 2002 Modern Critical [End Page 487] Views volume underscores, is quite another. Here, from prefatory expressions of regret that the particular critical views on offer fail "truly" to raise "the question of the aesthetic achievement" of Aurora Leigh (a work "which John Ruskin loved, but I, alas, do not"), Bloom quickly escalates into overt attack. "In the universities, colleges, and schools of the English-speaking world," his introduction opens, "the canon wars in one sense are pragmatically over, since the academies, joined by the media, have replaced virtually all aesthetic and cognitive standards by considerations of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, and other irreducible resentments." EBB (readers may be surprised to learn) has thus "eclipsed her husband"; and as a result, it seems, Modern Critical Views has been reduced to providing the volume at hand. True, Bloom suggests, there is "no necessary finality" in the surrender of standards: "a considerable resistance still exists, even in 'the ruined academies.'" Still, he implies, in this context, his hands are tied: "I who have limped off too many canonical battlefields, acknowledge defeat in the academies, and am content to carry on the war elsewhere, and not in this Introduction."7

These words may be intended to resonate with something like the gravitas of Swinburne's "Hymn to Proserpine": "Thou hast conquered, O pale Barrett Browning." To some EBB "partisans" (Bloom, p. 1), they might sound more like Malvolio's threat toward the end of Twelfth Night. Still, they are not to be taken lightly: for in a sense, Bloom is already being "revenged on the whole pack" of us, including his contributors.8 For if, as Sandra Donaldson's introduction to her own fine edited critical collection notes, popular Victorian poetry textbook headnotes can no longer neatly dispatch the Sonnets from the Portuguese, in Bloom's words, as "quite bad," or Aurora Leigh as "very bad,"9 still, Chelsea House's successful marketing ensures that when many readers open their first volume of EBB criticism, they will nonetheless find serious study of that poet linked to the...