- Damsels, Dulcimers, and Dreams:Elizabeth Barrett's Early Response to Coleridge
When Elizabeth Barrett famously complained in 1845 to Henry Chorley that she "look[ed] everywhere for Grandmothers and [found] none," she neglected to mention that her early reviewers seemed as eager as she to find an appropriate genealogy for her poetry.1 To read nineteenth- and early-twentieth century critical views of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry is to see her compared to everyone from Chaucer to Tennyson, and with particular gusto to earlier nineteenth-century writers, especially Byron and Wordsworth. From early reviews of Elizabeth Barrett's work to Dorothy Mermin's groundbreaking book to Marjorie Stone's indispensable 1995 study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, many critics have noted her connections to the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but there has been little sustained examination of those connections, as there has been with Barrett Browning and other Romantic writers.2 While Barrett herself wrote a noted essay in praise of Wordsworth, her critical opinions of Coleridge were shared primarily in much more personal venues. Barrett Browning recalled reading Coleridge enthusiastically while yet a girl at Hope End; later, I will argue, Coleridge becomes a shared mentor figure for Barrett and Mary Russell Mitford. But to Hugh Boyd, her much older male mentor, Barrett wrote in 1843, in relation to Wordsworth, "yet I said & say in an under-voice, but stedfastly, that Coleridge was the grander genius" (BC, 7:123). Whence this strongly-felt conviction—and why must it be restricted to an "under-voice"?
A complicated nexus of gender, genre, and physical frailty attracts Barrett to Coleridge and his major poems in ways that both empower and endanger her own ambitions of poetic fame. She seems, in her early publications, to court comparison with male poets writing in "masculine" genres, while seeing in none of the many women writers she read reason enough to align herself with them as her literary "Grandmothers," though she claims to long for such a female literary model. Coleridge, however, allows her to have it both ways: in both her correspondence and her poetry of the 1830s and 1840s, she assumes and celebrates Coleridge's "masculine" status as a Romantic genius, yet she recognizes and embraces "feminized"elements of his poetry, poetics, [End Page 129] and public image that reflect and validate her own experience. In a manner of speaking, Coleridge, then, becomes the liminal literary "Grandmother" that Barrett can never overtly acknowledge as such.
One of the central issues of Barrett Browning's career is how she constructs for herself and attempts to construct for others a feminine tradition in English poetry. Although she notes that she finds no literary "Grandmothers," however hard she looks, that complaint is not registered until 1845. Earlier in her life, although she may have had quite progressive, even radical, social and political ideas about equality, she found herself trying to make new subjects fit old forms. In her juvenilia and early work, especially, Barrett experiments with adapting various masculine poetic traditions she admires; her first public poem, The Battle of Marathon, a martial narrative in the heroic style of Pope's epic translations, was privately printed by her indulgent father. Although the publication certainly whetted her appetite for poetic fame and praise, it remains painfully clear that at the age of fourteen, the only models she had for such poetic fame were patriarchal.
Simon Avery, in the initial two chapters of his book (co-written with Rebecca Stott) on Barrett Browning, considers these early works of Elizabeth Barrett, situating them fascinatingly in Barrett's contemporary political controversies, especially those fears of tyranny surrounding Peterloo and the popular Romantic cause of Greek independence.3 While he makes very compelling arguments for reading key aspects of The Battle of Marathon and An Essay on Mind, in particular, as Whiggish and even proto-feminist, the fact remains that during this period, Barrett's poetry illustrates something of a double bind: she may have been an avid defender of Wollstonecraft's radical notions about gender, but her very distaste for bourgeois conventions of womanhood put her in danger of self-loathing and made the acquisition...