- "Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn":EBB's Sonnets to George Sand
Elizabeth Barrett Browning revered the fiction of George Sand, feeling such a kinship with her French female contemporary that she described her to Mary Russell Mitford as "the greatest female poet the world ever saw" (my italics).1 As Marjorie Stone persuasively maintains, "Barrett Browning found no woman writer to match Sand's genius among her precursors and contemporaries."2 EBB was aware that while the relatively short history of the novel displayed a fair number of high quality female authors, none of the many past ages of poetic expression provided female role models. Her famous complaint, "I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none," implicitly suggested an unsettling distinction between male and female intellectual abilities.3 EBB saw no alternative but to adopt an anti-feminist position, which she defended to Robert Browning: "I would confide to you perhaps my secret profession of faith—which is … that let us say and do what we please and can … there is a natural inferiority of mind in women—of the intellect … and that the history of Art and of genius testifies to this fact openly."4 She qualified her position, however, with a single exception to this rule: George Sand—not only her French contemporary but, as she fervently believed, the only woman "down all the ages of the world" who justified "an opposite opinion" (Kintner, 1:113).
To express her admiration for Sand, EBB wrote a sonnet pair in her honor, the first version of which appeared in Poems, in Two Volumes (1844): "To George Sand: A Desire" and "To George Sand: A Recognition." EBB first began reading Sand in 1842, which was a key date for her because it corresponded to her turn to the sonnet form in the aftermath of her brother's death. Unable to verbalize her "hopeless grief" after her beloved brother drowned in 1840, EBB grew very attracted to the sonnet form, which she saw as both arising out of and simulating the death-like silence of profound suffering. In Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (2007), I argue that "the sonnet, better than any other form, allowed nineteenth-century women poets to investigate and promote gendered interpretations of silence."5 As I have shown, women were drawn to the sonnet form "because, with its exigent [End Page 577] rules of meter, syllable count, rhyme scheme, and structural shifts, it offered them a ready-made metaphor for the difficulties of articulation" (p. 156). Anxious about the absence of great female poets in previous generations and worried that women might lack the intellectual and artistic capacity of their male counterparts, nineteenth-century women poets were deeply troubled by their own historical and seemingly inexorable silence. As I will illustrate in this paper, the George Sand sonnets to a certain extent reinforce the alliance between femininity, silence, grief, and the sonnet that I have previously examined in EBB's work. But the two sonnets also add a glimmer of hope to the case I have previously made about EBB's grieving sonnets of 1844, sonnets that might easily be read as confirming the desperate reticence of the nineteenth-century woman poet. In her sonnets to George Sand, EBB suggests that the union between brother and sister selves might be made (or at least might almost be made) within the sonnet structure itself.
EBB's George Sand sonnets are so stylistically dense and so rich with allusions that they have perpetually eluded critics. As Margaret Morlier emphasizes, EBB's sonnets to George Sand "remain two of Barrett's most difficult poems."6 While feminist scholars such as Helen Cooper, Sandra M. Donaldson, Dorothy Mermin, Elaine Showalter, and Patricia Thomson have debated the sonnets' aesthetic merit, Morlier adopts a historicist approach.7 Through this method, she pays close attention to the topical nuances in EBB's poetic language and alerts us to "carefully chosen diction that responds to specific issues raised in the English press" (p. 320). More recently, Clare Broome Saunders has demonstrated how EBB "uses medievalism to present positive examples of female activity to a contemporary society...