- Slavish Poses: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Aesthetics of Abolition
Elizabeth Barrett Browning arrived late to the party. By the time her sonnet “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave” appeared in Household Words in 1850, a slurry of similar poetic tributes to Powers’s sculpture had been published on both sides of the Atlantic. Her decision to compose poetry on the Greek Slave, then, was conventional in the strictest sense of the word: it shared both subject matter and conceptual preoccupations with a far larger body of work that is now more or less forgotten. On an even broader level, however, her sonnet is built upon conventions, as it purposefully examines the political potential of convention itself. Barrett Browning uses her verses to ruminate on Powers’s controversial manipulation of classical ideals of femininity to ignite cultural controversy—in particular, his canny deployment of a traditional female nude to arouse indignation about slavery and sexual double-standards. In its meditations on the artistic means to political ends, “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave” constitutes an aesthetic treatise in miniature, one that plays a central but mostly overlooked role in the development of Barrett Browning’s antislavery poetry.
The second of three poems on American slavery that she published during her lifetime, “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave” revisits conventional discourses about sexuality and Christianity that shape Barrett Browning’s earlier abolitionist work, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” The ideas advanced in the sonnet provide a window onto the process by which Barrett Browning reworked the tropes of race, sex, and religion that appear in “The Runaway Slave” into the sophisticated, subversive aesthetic strategies of her final antislavery work, “A Curse for a Nation.” Close attention to the forms of conventionality running through Barrett Browning’s three poems thus reveals the importance of both “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave” and the statue it memorializes to Barrett Browning’s formulation of an aesthetic strategy that would allow her to denounce slavery from her complex cultural position as a white, British, woman poet in the mid-nineteenth century. [End Page 637]
The difficulties of staking out her speaking position manifest themselves most clearly in the formal and ideological intricacies of the poems themselves. As she struggled to create political poems that could proselytize for an internationally divisive cause, Barrett Browning also had to overcome conventional notions of what constituted appropriate female poetic “subjects.” She had, in other words, to rework both the subject position of the white, British, female speaker and the idea of her proper subject matter. This reworking plays out in the tensions visible within the poems, where conventional discourses about female passivity and the sanctity of motherhood tug against the political points the poems advance. The same tensions are visible in the body of scholarly work devoted to Barrett Browning’s abolitionist poems, which tends to focus rather single-mindedly on either the works’ radical commitments or their conservative conventions. A full appreciation of these poems, however, requires attention to their extraordinary ability to turn apparently oppressive conventions to progressive sociopolitical ends.
This ability evolves over the course of Barrett Browning’s oeuvre, so exploring it in detail involves tracing her changing commitments to convention across all three of her antislavery works. In her earliest abolitionist publication, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” Barrett Browning imposes a Marian Christian narrative on a runaway slave’s story in order to locate a site of specifically feminine intervention into those earthly politics long supposed to be the exclusive sphere of men. The same tropological preoccupations reappear in “Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave,” where Barrett Browning theorizes the advantages of locating her abolitionist appeal not in the voice of a slave herself but instead in the persona of a conventionally “pure,” white, and thoroughly Victorian woman. Moving from theory to practice, Barrett Browning deploys the strategy she formulates in her sonnet in the multi-layered formal structure of her final abolitionist poem, “A Curse for a Nation.”
Radical Revisions in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”
With its overtly political origins—it was Barrett Browning’s response to an invitation she received from abolitionists associated with the American antislavery giftbook the Liberty Bell...