Introduction: "Confirm my voice": "My sisters," Poetic Audiences, and the Published Voices of EBB
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Victorian Poetry 44.4 (2006) 391-403

Introduction "Confirm my voice":
"My sisters," Poetic Audiences, and the Published Voices of EBB

In a pocket notebook including works dating from the 1842-44 period, the poet who used the name Elizabeth Barrett Barrett before her marriage and Elizabeth Barrett Browning afterwards, or "EBB" for short throughout her life,1 drafted an untitled, unfinished poem beginning "My sisters! Daughters of this Fatherland / Which we call England!"2 In this fragment, published here for the first time (see below), she calls upon the women of England: "Give me your ear & heart—Grant me yr voice / Do confirm my voice—lest it speak in vain." Fifty years after her birth in 1806, there seemed little reason to believe that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had spoken "in vain." By 1856, hosts of readers—male as well as female, in England and well beyond its borders—"confirmed" her voice with widespread reviews, frequent tributes, strong disagreements (an indirect form of confirmation), and solid sales. Her 1844 Poems (published in the United States as A Drama of Exile: And Other Poems), combined with works such as "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," published in the 1848 issue of the Boston anti-slavery annual The Liberty Bell, had established her trans-Atlantic reputation. By mid century, she stood with Tennyson among the first rank of English poets, celebrated not only by the public, but also by other writers and artists. She was the only woman writer included in the list of "Immortals" drawn up by the zealous young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.3 She was also named by the Athenaeum as a suitable contender for the position of Poet Laureate on Wordsworth's death in 1850, the year in which an expanded new edition of her Poems appeared.4 Casa Guidi Windows (1851), on the movement for Italian unification and nationhood, generated mixed reviews in England, given its controversial call for British intervention in continental politics. In Italy, however, in an 1852 address to the Piedmont Chamber of Deputies, it was cited by the Italian writer and politician, Massimo D'Azeglio, then Prime Minister of the Italian state, and praised even by some of the Italian patriots whom the poem [End Page 391] critiqued.5 Aurora Leigh (1856), the first extended portrait of the woman poet in English literature, further enhanced EBB's international reputation even as it generated animated debates, going into more than twenty editions by century's end. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the backlash in England against Poems before Congress (1860), the poet's second book calling for British intervention in Italian liberation, her collected poems were repeatedly reprinted, or issued in new editions, along with multiple selected editions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, her work was discussed in France, especially popular in North America, and translated into French and Italian—even, in the case of "The Cry of the Children," into Russian.6

While hosts of nineteenth readers in different nations and languages may have "confirmed" EBB's voice with ear, heart, writing, and speech acts of their own, their divergent responses to a body of work that is extraordinarily wide-ranging in its representation of speakers, deployment of poetic forms, and variable subject matter suggests how complex and multi-faceted an issue "voice" can be in her poetry. To accommodate the amplitude of her poetry and multiplicity of its effects—its intertextual engagements with precursors, its refraction through varying generic registers, and the "Uproar in the echo"7 that it excited through its utterance—we might do better to speak of the published "voices" of EBB's poetry. Our attachment to the concept of a holistic voice in reading poetry—a voice that connects us to the poet herself or himself through a subtle medium as intimate as breathing—-speaks to our nostalgia for the integrated unitary self as an ultimate origin of utterance. Yet as Margaret Linley, Eric Griffiths, and Yopie Prins, among...