- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This year's work on EBB brings the harvest of conferences and special journal issues marking the bicentenary of the poet's birth in 1806. The harvest includes scholarship on an increasing range of her output, including works little discussed in contemporary criticism, such as her 1826 poem "An Essay on Mind," works in her 1833 and 1838 collections, and the neglected but ambitious 1844 poem "A Vision of Poets." As might be expected, Aurora Leigh and the Sonnets from the Portuguese continue to attract considerable scholarly attention, while Poems Before Congress and other poems by EBB on Italian politics also figure prominently this year, together with the pedagogical and creative challenges posed by "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point." Poetic voice is a recurrent topic; other topics include EBB's engagement with Aeschylus and classical translation, with the tradition of the epigram, and with Shakespeare; her response to debates on modernity and to the periodical press; her impact on American women poets; and the new light cast by manuscripts on her poetic development.
The largest gathering of work on EBB to appear this past year is Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-2006: A Bicentenary Issue (VP 24 ), guest edited by Beverly Taylor and Marjorie Stone. In their "Introduction" to this issue, entitled "'Confirm my voice': 'My sisters,' Poetic Audiences, and the Published Voices of EBB," Stone and Taylor publish for the first time an incomplete manuscript fragment by the poet beginning "My sisters! Daughters of this Fatherland / Which we call England" (pp. 394-395), using the fragment to demonstrate the challenges negotiated by the poet as she sought to insert her voice into a predominantly male tradition of public poetry in the 1840s. Taylor and Stone also contend that to "accommodate the amplitude" of EBB's poetry, its diverse "generic registers," and the "multiplicity of its effects," we "might do better to speak of the published 'voices'" of her poetry, arising in a period when "voice" itself emerged "as a powerful figure" (p. 392) for the origin of poetic utterance as new technologies transformed it into a print phenomenon. Like the array of papers presented in March 2006 at a conference at the Armstrong Browning Library also celebrating the bicentenary (some of them published in this special issue), the VP bicentenary collection ranges well beyond the feminist preoccupations of the path-breaking critics of the 1970s and 80s, who so fruitfully focused on such topics as EBB's representations of women and her expositions of the sexual double standard, women's legal disabilities, their limited access to education and employment, and the exploitation of prostitutes and seamstresses. [End Page 274] In "Telling it Slant: Promethean, Whig, and Dissenting Politics in Elizabeth Barrett's Poetry of the 1830s," the first essay in the issue, Simon Avery aptly observes that "we are now coming to recognize" EBB's writing "as important for our understanding of areas as diverse as the experiences of the nineteenth-century woman writer, developments in Romantic and Victorian poetic aesthetics, and the construction of the nineteenth-century vates figure. 'How shall we re-read thee? Let me count the ways'" (p. 405). Avery adeptly situates the poems from EBB's 1833 and 1838 volumes within the broader contexts of intellectual and cultural history, elucidating their varying strands of Whig, Promethean, and Dissenting politics, and interpreting them in the context of major Romantic as well as Victorian issues and themes, such as the aesthetics of the sublime. As he points out, much of the 1830's poetry does not seem to manifest the political engagement of 1820's works by EBB; in fact, the poet "appears to withdraw somewhat from direct commentary upon political issues," turning to "large mythic narratives, landscape poetry, and religious verse" (p. 406). Avery contends, however, that works such as EBB's 1833 translation of Prometheus Bound, "The Tempest" (1833), "The Deserted Garden" (1838), and "An Island" (1838) engage with key political issues in the period, including "reform and the extension of civil rights" as well as "authoritative power and structures of tyranny" (p. 410).
While Avery reads these oblique political engagements within the familiar developmental narrative...