Barrett Browning's Poetic Vocation: Crying, Singing, Breathing
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Victorian Poetry 39.4 (2001) 509-532



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Barrett Browning's Poetic Vocation:
Crying, Singing, Breathing

Steve Dillon


O Hyacinthes, for ay your AI keepe still.

—William Drummond, "Teares, On the Death of Moeliades"

The poetic career of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from apprentice to master has been mapped many times. Her turn from cloistered classicism and imitation in her early poems to self-assertion and innovation in Aurora Leigh has been carefully described, for example, by Dorothy Mermin. Mermin convincingly shows that Barrett Browning's "main subject" and "struggle," throughout her career, is "to find woman's place in the central tradition of poetry." 1 In her 1995 book on Barrett Browning, Marjorie Stone traces the development of the poetry up to Aurora Leigh by placing it in the context of Victorian ideas about genre, and also studying it in terms of her contemporary critical reception. 2 Recently, Linda M. Lewis has more rigorously emphasized Christian contexts, while once again working towards Aurora Leigh, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Spiritual Progress (1998). 3 Most critics, to one degree or another, use Aurora Leigh as both a model and a goal for organizing their overview of Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh, for all its heterogeneity and failings, is still the most original of her works, and also the most like autobiography, as the most expressive. Barrett Browning's brilliant voice-until now partly hidden in her letters-bursts out, singularly, powerfully, even as her heroine recites a story of finding herself as a poet, of finding her poetic voice.

In this essay, I will re-trace this storied career yet again, by focusing even more deliberately on the imagery associated with poetic articulation. From The Seraphim to Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning repeatedly and self-consciously studies the moment when a human voice breaks out in a cry. This cry may take the form of ecstatic shriek, painful shout, or despairing moan to God. It is basic to both her Psalmic Christianity and to her reception as a "spasmodic" prophetess. Her sublime, intuitive, and anti-formalist poetics cause her to represent and theorize over and over again [End Page 509] the articulation of poetic voice. And Barrett Browning's poetic attention is not only turned to the analysis of the poet's cry, as we shall see, but also turned towards the cries of others. Listening to the cry is often as much a part of the creative process as crying out oneself.

This essay, then, continues the work of Helen Cooper, who in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist (1988) notes that Barrett Browning moves from the sighing, crying world of The Seraphim ("as she feels, / With a spasm, not a speech" [2. 480-481]) to the power of her own voice and written self-representation in Aurora Leigh ("[I] will write my story for my better self," Aurora Leigh 1.4). 4 I would like to complicate this narrative of progress, however, since the successful development of language from cry might not be so clear. As Tricia Lootens observes in her chapter, "Canonization through Dispossession: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the 'Pythian Shriek,'" critics such as Edmund Gosse perceived the entire career as tumultuous, impulsive, enthusiastic; thus Gosse writes of those who praised her: "They easily forgave the slipshod execution, the hysterical violence, the Pythian vagueness and the Pythian shriek." 5 While this is a somewhat standard critique of "effeminate" passion by gentlemanly virility, I propose that Gosse's thumbnail disparagment has substance, after all, is more than facile prejudice. For Gosse is only the last of several critics to depict a "shrieking" Barrett Browning, and Mark Weinstein observed long ago how William Aytoun went after Aurora Leigh as a member of "The Spasmodic School" of poetry. 6 In other words, the outwelling of prophecy, and the wailing of melancholy, may be stages not so easily outgrown, or noises so readily articulated.

With respect to the development of Barrett Browning's poetry, let us take as emblematic and explanatory the following famous passage from Ovid. In the tenth book of the Metamorphoses, Orpheus tells the...