How do we love Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Let us count the ways.
And this, my friends, is probably the first reason that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (let’s call her EBB for the sake of brevity) should be pissed off. People use and misuse, appropriate and massage her poetry to suit their needs, as I did above. Why can’t we just leave this poor poem alone?
The original poem is part of a collection of 44 sonnets called Sonnets from the Portuguese. She wrote them for her husband, Robert Browning, who knew they were brilliant and urged her to publish them. She titled them as she did because the sonnets were deeply personal and she wanted people to think that they had been translated rather than written about her own marriage.
Nice try, Liz. We see through your little scheme.
The most famous of the sonnets, number 43, is the one I butchered in those first two sentences. People read it as a breathless love poem where EBB is basically inarticulate with love. (Kind of a stupid assumption about someone who lived her whole life as a poet and also married a poet. Let’s see if we can think of two people more unlikely to be inarticulate… nope.) In fact, as my brilliant (now retired) University of North Dakota professor and international EBB scholar, Sandra Donaldson, pointed out to my enthralled grad school class, EBB is very articulate in this sonnet, almost scientific. She asks, “How do I love thee?” and then states “Let me count the ways,” before going on to, yes, essentially count the ways. In a series of statements beginning with “I love thee,” she details her love for her husband.
Aside from misreadings and bastardizations of her work, the other reasons EBB should be pissed off include our lack of attention to her political work. This is not to say that she was a politician, but she did take on important issues in her poetry. Case in point: her poem, “The Cry of the Children.”
They look up, with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see…
‘How long,’ they say, ‘how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart—”
I’ve messed up her brilliant rhyme scheme by giving you only these excerpts, but I wanted you to get the imagery and call to action that is in the poem. Doesn’t it make you want to travel back in time and at the very least take all of the children working in factories out for ice cream? Poor kids. (Literally.)
In 1843, when EBB published “The Cry of the Children,” factory acts had restricted children’s workdays in textile factories to 12 hours for 11-to-18-year-olds and 8 hours for 9-to-11-year-olds. In other industries such as coal mines, chimney sweeping, iron works, and more, children as young as five years old worked 16 hour days.
Yeh. Puts our lives in some perspective, no? (I say we all agree to hold this information over the heads of children spending their summers bickering and driving adults crazy. “That’s right, kids—I will turn this car around and send you back in time to a Victorian factory! At the very least I will make you start sewing your own underwear out of wool and then we’ll see what’s worth whining about.”)
The year after EBB’s poem was published, legislation was changed again to improve working conditions for children. This is not a coincidence, and yet people have forgotten how influential her work was.
EBB also took on slavery, which is complicated for her because her family was from Jamaica (EBB was the first of her family born in England) and made their fortune through plantations that used slave labor. This didn’t stop EBB; in fact, it motivated her to work against slavery in her poetry. She wrote The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point from the perspective of a slave woman: “So the white men brought the shame ere long / To strangle the sob of my agony.”
Lastly, EBB should be pissed because after her death her husband, Robert Browning, eclipsed her fame and reputation. Now, Robert Browning was an incredible poet who deserves his place in history, but EBB was almost Poet Laureate in her lifetime (she lived 1806-1861). She lost out to Tennyson, but it’s a huge deal, especially when you consider that Britain did not appoint a female Poet Laureate until 2009.
EBB lived one of the most endearing literary love stories of all time. She had one son whom they nicknamed (so appropriately) Pen, and, like a hipster before her time, she refused to have his hair cut. She moved to Italy with her little family in an attempt to revive her health, which worked for a while. She helped change laws and get silenced voices heard. She hob-knobbed with the literary elite of her day. She wrote brilliantly and she knew it, setting high expectations for herself and her work.
She deserves to be pissed off. She deserves to be re-read.