- From Denunciation to Dialogue:Redefining Prophetic Authority in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Curse for a Nation"
If taken at face value, the imprecatory wrath called down by the title "A Curse for a Nation" would make this poem, originally published as the lead work in the 1856 issue of the Boston abolitionist annual the Liberty Bell, one of the most hostile compositions ever written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hereafter EBB).1 The poem seems all the more antagonistic in light of its republication as the terminal piece in Poems before Congress (1860), the controversial volume on the Italian Risorgimento ("resurgence" or "rebirth") about which EBB hinted darkly to her sister Arabella in the weeks prior to its publication, "you wont [sic] like it & everybody else in England wont [sic] like me because of it" (Letters to Arabella 2: 444). Despite the battle lines this comment suggests, EBB's poem advances a prophetic and expansive vision of political engagement, one that reflects her self-identification as a "citizenness of the world" who can "float loose," as she playfully described her expatriate position in an 1851 letter to her cousin John Kenyon (The Brownings' Correspondence 17: 70). This fluidity is evident in the dual contexts of the Liberty Bell and Poems before Congress: as readers have long recognized, whereas the former clearly frames the poem's malediction as directed at the United States for its practices of slavery, the latter volume invites an understanding of this curse as a response to England's inaction in the struggle for Italian unification and independence.2
While this publication history underscores both the international scope and the ambiguity of "A Curse for a Nation," I argue that EBB's provocative politics issue primarily from her innovative use of the trope of redefinition. As signalled by the title's two indefinite articles, "A Curse for a Nation" broadens its animating concepts (curse and nation) as it unfolds. Taken together, these redefinitions widen the poem's prophetic stance: beyond rebuking a single chosen people, "A Curse for a Nation" articulates a pluralistic and inclusive understanding of social justice, one parsed in terms of an unruly variety of Biblical texts. Throughout the poem's prologue, which recounts the primary speaker's dream of a conversation with the angel who instructs her to write the malediction, as well as its two-part curse, EBB revises the jeremiad mode that her title announces. In so doing, she portrays the religious revelation that informs her political message not as a static denunciation [End Page 67] but as a transformative dialogue. Extrapolating from the theoretical framework of Mikhail Bakhtin, my essay analyzes the dialogism that sustains the poem's formal patterns and conditions its address to the reader. I thereby aim to show that "A Curse for a Nation" participates in the larger cultural discourse of Victorian sage writing yet exceeds both the oracular voice and the nationalistic scope of this writing as conventionally delineated.
My focus on redefinition in "A Curse for a Nation" responds to an ongoing critical debate about EBB's assertion of a prophetic speaker, as well as to the perennial challenges of definition that are evident in studies of the Victorian sage. First discussed by John Holloway in his pioneering book The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (1953) as a vatic rhetorical style derived from Thomas Carlyle, Victorian sage writing has since been theorized by George P. Landow, in Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer (1986), as a discursive form that adapts the voice and stance of the Biblical prophets for the purposes of social critique (18). As Landow's subtitle indicates, his book considers both British and American authors; nevertheless, he frequently retains Holloway's terminology of "Victorian" sage writing (24–27). While Landow restricts this category to non-fiction prose, he assigns Victorian sage writing an implicit generic multiplicity and traces its roots across spoken and written sermons, typological exegesis, neoclassical satire, and Romantic poetry (33). Building on these observations about sage writing's latent plurality and mobilizing Bakhtinian theory, Thaïs E. Morgan argues that the sage's claims to "the right, true, and authoritative view" stand...