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9 Elizabeth Barrett Browning: History, Politics, and Culture Michele M a rtin ez • One of the most popular and esteemed poets of her generation, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) has a life story that hardly needs retelling to the readers of this journal.The engraved frontispiece portrait published in the fourth edition of Aurora Leigh (1859) iconizes the professional woman of letters, whose signature,“EBB,” never changed, even after marriage(see frontispiece).1 In her correspondence and prefaces, EBB sometimes played the awestruck apprentice to poets both ancient and contemporary. By the time of her death, in 1861, however, she was England’s“Great Poetess,”2 an authority with whom her contemporaries and epigones had to reckon. It is this persona of the erudite, versatile, and impassioned woman poet that incited feminist scholars in the 1970s and 1980s to restore EBB’s poetry to theVictorian canon. Yet there are aspects of EBB’s intellectual interests, posthumous publication history, and cultural status that fell into obscurity once her husband, Robert Browning, became the secret sharer of modernist poets and academic critics anointed him as Tennyson’s premier rival. Biographical and critical monographs have tended to dwell on the psychodrama of EBB’s family life and her “marriage of true minds” with Browning. But literary scholars, especially since the late 1980s, have explored the poet’s social, sexual, and cultural politics, as they were articulated in her verse, prefaces, diaries, notebooks, and extensive correspondence (Cooper; Mermin; Leighton; Stone; Avery and Stott). For it is often in the prose that we receive glimpses of EBB’s other personae—the history buff, political observer, expatriate celebrity, or invalid genius—and it is these identities that have prompted recent critics to seek new approaches to her poetry. Drawing on diverse fields of inquiry—English historiography, archive theory, cultural studies, political theory, and disability studies—the six essays in this special issue address two broad subjects: EBB’s political poetry and her literary character, both before and after her death. However different their approaches, the three essays by Simon Avery, Marjorie Stone, and BeverlyTaylor all emphasize the development of EBB’s liberal political views, especially with respect to the Italian independence struggle known as the Risorgimento.The last three essays, by Eric Eisner, Julia Miele Rodas, and Karen Manarin, explore the power of poet-worship in EBB’s life and art, as well as its fate in the North American high school classroom. victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 10 In“Mapping Political History: EBB and Nineteenth-Century Historiography,” SimonAvery presents the sources of the poet’s historical knowledge and charts the progress of EBB’s interest in the ideological uses of history throughout her major works. Beginning with the poet’s commitment to the Whig principles that she inherited from her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, Avery explores the centrality of these principles to the long poems she wrote before 1850. In The Battle of Marathon (1820), a mini-epic written when she was just fourteen years old, EBB turns to Herodotus for the subject of Athens’s emergence as a democratic city-state.Avery argues that the poem“reflects aWhig-like narrative of progressive history where a society emerges and develops to a high point of civilization”(24). His analysis reveals EBB’s“renegotiation of the gendered positions of traditional epics” and her interest in the transition from an individualist warrior ethos to a “new sense of communal identity and support” (24). Moreover, the poem’s main theme—the overthrow of authoritarianism— reflects on contemporary conflicts, including the liberation of Greece, the defeat of Napoleon, and the violent confrontations between supporters of radical reform and the English militia. Political change and social justice are recurrent topics in EBB’s poetry, and Avery shows that while aWhig model of history informed her vision of a progressivist Europe, she came to question this model in light of the troubles she observed in England, the United States, and (from 1846 onward) her adopted home, Italy. Avery’s essay also attends to EBB’s criticism of English historiography in the philosophical verse treatise An Essay on Mind (1826), an homage to Pope’s Essay on Man that is attuned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 9-16
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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