Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Religious Poetics: Congregationalist Models of Hymnist and Preacher
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Religious Poetics:
Congregationalist Models of Hymnist and Preacher

In recent work on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's conception of the poet figure, several critics have situated Aurora Leigh within the context of Victorian sage discourse. Sage discourse, defined by John Holloway as the expression of "notions about the world, man's place in it, and how he should live," appealed to Victorian writers as a mode of expression because the rapidly shifting dynamics of their age seemed to call either for new understandings of human significance or for the recovery of values that were being lost.1 Thomas Carlyle set the terms of sage discourse early in the period: whoever else "may forget this divine mystery [of the Universe]," he declared, "the Vates, whether Prophet or Poet, has penetrated into it; is a man sent hither to make it more impressively known to us."2 As the gendered wording of Carlyle's (and Holloway's) definition reveals, Victorian sage discourse identified the vates as "a man." According to this configuration, only male poets and prose writers could claim the visionary authority of an Old Testament prophet to critique Victorian culture and offer alternative world views. The ideological configurations of respectable femininity also discouraged women writers from participating in such public and authoritative discourse. Yet, as Thaïs Morgan argues in her introduction to Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourses: Renegotiating Gender and Power, women writers frequently critiqued and subverted the patriarchal model of sage discourse by boldly entering "the 'masculine' world of socio-economic conflict, theological polemic, and sexual politics," despite the risks associated with "adopting a 'masculine' tone of authority."3 Margaret Reynolds and Marjorie Stone have each argued persuasively that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is just such a revisionary, gynocentric form of sage discourse.4 Stone argues, for example, that while Aurora Leigh "enters the tradition of Victorian sage writing through its representation of a prophetic speaker" and "its vision of a new social and spiritual order," it intentionally subverts the authoritative stance of sage figures such as Carlyle by embodying [End Page 135] the quest for a sustaining "Life Philosophy" through not one but "three interconnected spiritual autobiographies," of which two are women's (pp. 138, 149). And Rebecca Stott, extending some aspects of Stone's approach, locates the poem more precisely within Victorian nonconformist sage discourse, arguing that it "espouses non-conformist values such as the primacy of the individual conscience, commitment to social and political reform . . . and to the importance of work."5 These and other studies, such as Linda Lewis' discussion of the "wisdom figure" or prophetess in Aurora Leigh, all demonstrate the extent to which Barrett Browning made revisionist use of the notion of a prophet speaker.6

Yet while I agree with these scholars that Aurora Leigh at times figures the poet as prophet, in this study I want to suggest that the poet-as-prophet paradigm was actually a conflicted one for Barrett Browning, and not only because of gendered restrictions on its use. The figure of the cultural prophet imbued with an authoritative vision revealed to him alone for the benefit of others did not ultimately accord with Barrett Browning's democratic attitude as to how (religious) knowledge or wisdom is gained. Instead, Barrett Browning advocates and develops an alternative paradigm, one that moderates (though not completely erases) the poet-prophet stance. In her correspondence of the 1840s, Barrett names this alternative model for the poet as the preacher, a comparison she never later undercuts or replaces. In 1843, she writes, "[I] do hold that the poet is a preacher," and, two years later, "poets . . . must preach their own doctrine . . . to be the means of any wisdom."7 While the terms prophet and preacher are sometimes used interchangeably,8 I believe that for Barrett Browning, the term preacher was a very specific concept, both in terms of the figure conceived and the words spoken by that figure. In the first part of this study, I delineate Barrett's concept of the preacher by interpreting her comments within the context of her actual experience with preachers in the Congregationalist denomination with which she associated...