"In silence like to death": Elizabeth Barrett's sonnet turn.
--Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1)
ALTHOUGH ELIZABETH BARRETT BEGAN PUBLISHING POETRY AS EARLY AS 1820 she did not print her first three sonnets until 1838. Her 1844 collection, on the other hand, included 28 sonnets, and in 1850 she printed 50 sonnets. As I will demonstrate, this progressive turn toward the sonnet--a highly compressed, constrained form-reflects Barrett's growing investment in silence both as inhibitor and sustainer of her art.
Devastated by speechlessness after her brother drowned in 1840, convinced that "this long silence, embracing the most afflictive time of [her] whole life" could be neither poetically verbalized nor transcended, she began to question the redemptive model of lyric poetry to which she had previously subscribed. (2) The sonnet's brevity and reticence lent "a slow arm of sweet compression" to Barrett's work, providing her with a formal metaphor for silence and grief. (3) With her turn to the sonnet in 1844, Barrett addressed both her unspeakable sadness and also the absence of women's voices in the British lyric tradition. To do so, she responded to the sonnet tradition primarily in the context of two approaches: the amatory model according to which poets drew from the absence or unattainability of a beloved addressee a source of lyrical potency, and, alternatively, the Wordsworthian version (itself a recasting of Milton), whereby the unresponsiveness of nature or of a contemplated other is converted into the mind 's encounter with the sublime. (4)
Becoming for her, as it did for almost every major poet of the nineteenth century, a synecdoche for lyric poetry in general, the sonnet thus put Barrett into dialogue with her most prolific Romantic precursor in the field--a man who, perhaps not uncoincidentally, had lost his own brother to drowning. (5) The result was a collision between poetic modes. Rather than adopting Wordsworth's revisionary sonnet poetics as a means of resolving her preoccupation with an unutterable grief, Barrett put forth a competing model that re-evaluated the Wordsworthian sublime. Unlike Wordsworth, Barrett enlisted a non-recuperative version of negativity as a framework for her sonnets, and as a key to her understanding of lyric poetry in general. (6) By critiquing Wordsworth, Barrett wrote herself into the male lyric tradition; in so doing, she confronted the "silence of [her] womanhood"--a silence ultimately interchangeable, I will argue, both with her feminized grief and with the generative limits of poetry itself (Sonnet XIII , 1. 9).
After the death of Barrett's brother, her view of lyric poetry was radically called into question. (7) Her letters from this period chart, as Angela Leighton has remarked, "how heavy a burden of feeling the idea of silence carries." (8) Eleven years after the incident, Barrett wrote, "There is only one event in my life which never loses its bitterness; which comes back on me like a retreating wave, going and coming again, which was and is my grief." (9) Explaining that "one stroke ended [her] youth," Barrett entreated her correspondents to "say no more," to avoid speaking of her grief: "Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Home; and for the rest, you see that there is nothing to say. 'It is a blank, my lord."' (10)
Barrett's remarkable inability to verbalize her grief (she wrote to Mary Russell Mitford, "I cannot write of these things--you see I cannot--I cannot write or speak--I never have spoken--not one word--not to Papa--never named that name anymore") creates a silence that appears to be, in Leighton's words, "imaginatively unredeemable." (11) Leighton speculates, "It is perhaps a characteristic of the female imagination to desire that silence which is an abdication of all poetic power, rather than a culmination of it" (p. 83).
While I agree with Leighton that Barrett viewed her grieving silence as unredeemable, I contend that this experience led her not to renounce poetic power but, rather, to define the nature of lyric poetry more confidently and complexly than she had ever done before. Struggling with silence and grief, Barrett also strengthened her commitment to her poetic vocation.
In November, 1841, she wrote to Mitford of her grief, "I beseech you to say no more... My head turns to write. I never knew DESPAIR before those days--never. And the grief I had felt before so lately,--nay, all my former griefs & I have had many, were bruised out of my heart by one." (12) One year later, she explained to the artist, Benjamin Haydon, "I love poetry unto death." (13) And she reported to her brother, George, "I am writing such poems--allegorical--philosophical--poetical-ethical--synthetically arranged! I am in a fit of writing-could write all day and night" (14)
There is a striking contrast between Barrett's simultaneous insistence on helpless silence ("I cannot write of these things ... I cannot write or speak") and poetic productivity ("I am in a fit of writing-could write all day and night"). Her affirmation to Haydon, "I love poetry unto death," constructs poetry as a bridge between love and potential grief. Shortly after this declaration, she made the connection between poetry and grief explicitly; she wrote to Mitford, "Yes--poetry is divine. It resembles grief in rending asunder our conventionalities [italics inserted],... but does so singing instead of sighing. It transfigures the great humanity into the sense of its To-come." (15) From serving to counteract and compensate for grief, poetry for Barrett thus became, in part, a formal metaphor for grief itself.
This last observation best accounts for Barrett's turn to the sonnet form. She wrote to Mitford at this same time, "The sonnet structure is a very fine one, however imperious, and I never would believe that our language is unqualified for the very strictest Italian form. I have been exercising myself in it not unfrequently of late." (16) Just as grief "rend(s) asunder our conventionalities," the Petrarchan sonnet, "the very strictest of Italian form," breaks apart conventional form through the structural and thematic gap between octave and sestet. (17) Furthermore, if poetry communicates grief "singing instead of sighing," then the sonnet or "little song," with its focus on sonority and its claim to music, might best be able to achieve this conversion from silence to song. (18)
Although Barrett first met Wordsworth in 1836, her closeness to "the great poet" coincided with her substantial turn toward the sonnet in 1842. (19) In September of that year, Elizabeth Barrett's cousin, John Kenyon (responsible for Barrett's acquaintances with both Wordsworth and Browning), sent her "several little branches and buds out of Wordsworth's garden." (20) The near-mythical symbolism of this event was not lost on Barrett, who had orchestrated the exchange, originally requesting that Mr. Kenyon "supplicate for himself'; but Kenyon refused to "bear the ignominy of such fantastic sentimentality," and mentioned her name (p. 86). After receiving the poet's gift, Barrett wrote to her brother George, "Set has planted them--& prophecies are ominous--but I do trust that the Muses will interpose with all manner of invisible dews & secure the sprouting" (p. 86). Intimately familiar with the common Victorian tropological identification between poetry and flowers, Barrett was aware that her double request (firs t, for "branches and buds" from Wordsworth's garden, and second, for the Muses to "interpose" and "secure the sprouting") might be interpreted as a bold desire to take part in the Laureate's poetic power. (21)
Just one month after this event, Barrett received another reminder of Wordsworth: an unfinished portrait of the poet by Haydon. She explained, "I write under the eyes of Wordsworth.... Mr. Haydon the artist, with the utmost kindness, has sent me the portrait he was painting of the great poet--an unfinished portrait--and I am to keep it until he wants to finish it. Such a head! such majesty! and the poet stands musing upon Helvellyn! and all that--poet, Helvellyn, and all--is in my room!" (22) Barrett was so impressed by the painting that she composed a sonnet in response to it, which she sent to Mitford, and to Haydon, who forwarded it to the poet himself:
On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon Wordsworth upon Helvellyn! Let the cloud Ebb audibly along the mountain-wind Then break against the rock, and show behind The lowland valleys floating up to crowd The sense with beauty. He with forehead bowed And humble-lidded eyes, as one inclined Before the sovran thought of his own mind, And very meek with inspirations proud, Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest By the high altar, singing prayer and prayer To the higher Heavens. A noble vision free Our Haydon's hand has flung out from the mist: No portrait this, with Academic air! This is the poet and his poetry.
Wordsworth not only acknowledged the sonnet; he critiqued it as well, taking issue with her choice of the word "ebb" in line two and with her original lines 11 and 12: he wrote,
The conception of your sonnet is in full accordance with the painter's intended work, and the expression vigorous; yet the word 'ebb,' though I do not myself object to it, nor wish to have it altered, will I fear prove obscure to nine readers out of ten.
'A vision free
And noble, Haydon, hath thine art released.'
Owing to the want of inflections in our language the construction here is obscure. Would it not be a little [better] thus?--I was going to write a small change in the order of the words, but I find it would not remove the objection. The verse, as I take it, would be somewhat clearer thus, if you would tolerate the redundant syllable:
'By a vision free
And noble, Haydon, is thine art released.'
(Letters, ed. Kenyon, 1:113-114)
Having inscribed her own initials (Elizabeth Barrett [Moulton] Barrett) beneath Wordsworth's name in the first word of the sonnet 's second line, Barrett preferred not to acknowledge Wordsworth's criticism that the word "ebb" would "prove obscure to nine readers Out of ten." Instead, she let the word stand, signaling a brave self-inscriptive gesture similar to that which had motivated her recent request for seeds out of Wordsworth's garden. Nor did she accept Wordsworth's proposed changes to lines 11 and 12. She did alter these lines (Mitford had found fault with them as well) but the revision was her own: "A noble vision free / Our Haydon's hand has flung out from the mist." Barrett's unwillingness to defer to Wordsworth's criticisms directs our attention (as do biographical details) to the critique her sonnet puts forth of the very poet it purports to eulogize.
At first glance, Barrett's "On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon," written in Petrarchan form, appears to be constructed according to a double structure of praise. The octave compliments Wordsworth directly, placing the poet in a natural setting ("Wordsworth upon Helvellyn!") and describing, first the natural scene, then the poet himself, whose apparent unity with nature prepares for a sublime revelation. The sestet seems to accomplish this shift by subsuming both nature and poet under Haydon's portrait ("Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest"), thereby converting the poet's introverted, contemplative silence into divinely inspired song ("singing prayer and prayer / To the higher Heavens"). The object of praise now moves from the poet to the painting ("A noble vision free / Our Haydon's hand has flung out from the mist"), appearing to reveal how art (both Wordsworth's and Haydon's) can transcend its generic limitations ("No portrait this, with Academic air! / This is the poet and his poetry"). ( 23)
The transition from poet to painting, however, suggests a more involved reading: a further displacement from painting to poetry. Barrett's admiration of Wordsworth is subtly critical in tone. Wordsworth's bowed forehead and "humble-lidded eyes" parody his egotistical self-scrutiny ("as one inclined / Before the sovran thought of his own mind"), and his meekness belies his "inspirations proud." Wordsworth is shown to be both impotent and self-important. The turn away from this caricature toward the "noble vision" of Haydon's portrait, a move that creates the illusion of song, is also problematized, usurped by a further turn away from both image and song toward the site of Barrett's own writing.
This final shift becomes apparent in the last tercet, which reads, "Our Haydon's hand has flung out from the mist: / No portrait this, with Academic air! / This is the poet and his poetry." The syntactical ambiguity of the original lines, "A vision free / And noble, Haydon, hath thine art released" is telling, as is Wordsworth's revision, "By a vision free / And noble, Haydon, is thine art released." Barrett's initial rendering is ambivalent: the lines indicate either that a free and noble vision has released Haydon's art, or that Haydon's painting has released a noble vision. Wordsworth interestingly chose the first and least likely of these interpretations, preferring to think that art is finally transcendent to its object as well as to its motivating inspiration.
In fact, the ambiguity of Barrett's first version indicates that the painting and its subject matter may be equally insignificant. By releasing an already free vision, Haydon's artwork, rather than rendering it transcendent, transforming it into song or prayer, may instead be discarding it. In so doing, the artwork shows itself to be superfluous, "released" by the useless pretensions of its self-consciously denied "Academic air." This dual release whereby both vision and painting are dismissed or "flung out" permits Barrett's own acquisition of artistic power. Prom nature to poet to portrait, her sonnet moves in order from artistic object to artist to artwork, finally turning inward to its own form. The concluding tercet, "Our Haydon's hand has flung out from the mist: / No portrait this, with Academic air! / This is the poet and his poetry," re-defines the sonnets object from "portrait" to "poet" to "his poetry," thereby reversing the order in which these concepts are developed over the course of the poem. S upplanting first one, then the other of these terms with the potentially self-referential article, "this," Barrett's sonnet assumes the position of Wordsworth's poetry itself.
Although Barrett duplicates and responds to many of Wordsworth's own poetic techniques in her sonnet on Haydon's portrait, the 1844 sonnets also foreground a crucial difference: her reassessment of the sublime. (24) For Wordsworth, the passage from absence to presence and back again occurs through both a debilitating breakdown of the faculty of representation and a recuperative turn toward potency and self-affirmation. As J. Hillis Miller has observed, the recognition of an "oscillation between consciousness and nature, life and death, presence and absence, motion and stillness" is "the characteristic endpoint of any careful reading of Wordsworth's best poems." (25) However, Miller does not remark that to his list of binaries we might add silence and speech; nor does he note how "oscillation" (another word for Romantic irony) is often propelled by the sublime, which activates different forms of silence.
Miller recognizes that an "encounter with the blankness of an irresolution is an essential component of any thoughtful reading of Wordsworth's shorter poems. This irresolution is constituted by the 'suspens vibratoire,' in Mallarme's phrase, of enigmatic juxtapositions among the words of the poem" (p. 68). If Wordsworth's encounter with "blankness" is his meeting with the sublime itself, then the "vibratory suspense" of meaning in his poems is kept in motion by the simultaneously annihilating and rehabilitating effect of these collisions. No critic to my knowledge has uncovered the way that Elizabeth Barrett enlists the sonnet as a means of revising Wordsworth's poetics on precisely these points.
Considering Wordsworth's view of incarnative language as "not what the garb is to the body but what the body is to the soul," Karen Mills-Courts speculates that Wordsworth's language incarnates by establishing relationship between thought and the world as thought. (26) Wordsworthian incarnation is not an attempt to embody an external force, Mills-Courts explains, but rather it presents thought as self-consciousness. Incarnating thought in words by contemplating itself as a "thing," the mind enters into intimate proximity to death, for, in so doing, it objectifies itself, as though it were a fragment of the external world. Wordsworth's poetry thus incarnates, Mills-Courts notes, in very much the same way that a ruin does; anticipating Derrida's discussion of signs in Writing and Difference, his language appears
somewhat like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art. A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture. This state of being haunted, which keeps the city from returning to nature, is perhaps the general mode of presence or absence of the thing itself in pure language. (27)
Let us narrow our focus to two juxtaposed sonnets, Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802" and Elizabeth Barrett's "Grief" (1844):
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge Sept. 3, 1802 Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," Barrett's favorite sonnet of his, is typical of his sonnet poetics in general. (28) It begins with a series of negations: "Earth has not anything to show more fair"; "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by" (a figure non-existent in the poem); "The beauty of the morning, silent, bare"; "All bright and glittering in the smokeless air" (my italics). The round-about opening posits that the sight the poem exposes is "touching," which hints that the sonnet is working incarnatively, with its subject matter (the City or, most accurately, the mind itself) embodied: i.e., rendered tangible. At the same time, the view of the City wearing the beauty of the morning "like a garment" recalls Wordsworth's warning: unlike representational language, incarnative language is "not what the garb is to the body but what the body is to the soul." This alerts the reader to the operative negativity in the octave. The scene is not in fact "touching" at all but rather is situated at a remove from the poem's mode of signification. In other words, the sonnet may not present thought itself but may only represent it, as if in a mirror reflection, just as the City only wears (not as its body but as a mere "garment") the beauty of the morning.
The phrase, "silent, bare," is followed by a chain of images, which culminates in the verb "lie." Falling at a line break, this word carries the weight of a double meaning, as if the long catalogue of images that the octave describes is "belied" by the negativity of the poem's representational mode. Wearing the morning sunlight's beauty "like a garment" (and the poem performs the same gesture, Wordsworth implies), "this City" is unable to be touched; its beauty is a form of emptiness.
With the turn from octave to sestet, negativity takes on a new quality. As J. Hillis Miller has shown, the "negatives and quasi-negatives" in Wordsworth's sonnet on Westminster bridge "have a strange power to create as a shimmering mirage lying over their explicit assertions the presence of what they deny" (p. 72). The fall into deception in the first part of the poem gives rise to a positive movement in the second with the introduction of the word "Never." Subtly re-positioning the negativity of absence in the past tense ("Never did sun"), the poem appears to overcome its limitations; the gap between octave and sestet (in which the sublime turn takes place) enables the lyric "I" to emerge in a positive movement of self-affirmation ("Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"). Mute representation transforms into an incarnative exclamation, "Dear God!", which brings (or which endeavors to bring) divine presence into the poem as a result of the speaker's newly asserted self-awareness. However, the final line, " And all that mighty heart is lying still!," echoes the hint at deception from the octave ("temples lie"), suggesting that the incarnative moment permitted by an encounter with recuperative negativity is necessarily re-absorbed back into vacant representation. (29)
Ultimately, the sublime aspect of "this City" (or this Language), Wordsworth suggests, is the way that it reflects presence and absence, life and death. The sight is touching (i.e., it can both be incarnated and arouse pathos), only not as the view of an inhabited city but rather as that of a haunted mental architecture, "reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art" (Derrida, p. 5).
Barrett's 1844 sonnet, "Grief," clearly reworks Wordsworth's "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge":
Grief I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless; That only men incredulous of despair, Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air Beat upward to God's throne in loud access Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness, In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-Hearted man, express Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death-- Most like a monumental statue set In everlasting watch and moveless woe Till itself crumble to the dust beneath. Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet: If it could weep, it could arise and go.
Both sonnets are written in Petarchan form, which in itself is not unusual, but, significantly, the poems also share a similar choice of rhymes. One of the rhyme schemes in both octaves ends in "are/air"; two of these rhymes are identical--Wordsworth's "smokeless air" appears in Barrett's sonnet as "midnight air"; Wordsworth's fifth line ends with the word "bare" and so does the sixth line of Barrett's sonnet. Even more strikingly, these two lines share identical second to last words: silent. This strange coupling of words, "silent, bare" for Wordsworth, and "silent-bare" for Barrett, is very provocative.
In Wordsworth's sonnet, "silent, bare" is followed by a long chain of images that in a way contradict the supposed nakedness of the scene. (30) The City may be silent, but silence does not include bareness, Wordsworth submits, and the division between these two terms by means of a comma, "silent, bare," allows for their differentiation. But in Barrett's sonnet (and she was frequently criticized for her use of composite words), the modifiers combine to form a single word: "silent-bare." Hence, her view of silence includes exposure in a way that Wordsworth's does not, and her use of negativity will not inspire a self-affirmative turn through the sublime.
Like Wordsworth, Barrett fills her octave with negatives: "hopeless," "passionless," "desertness," "silent-bare." But unlike Wordsworth, she does not convert them into positives. Rather, the impossibility of achieving this conversion in the face of hopeless grief becomes her sonnets theme. The word "full" in the fifth line thus ironically increases absence rather than opposing it ("Full desertness"). Her assertion that "only men incredulous of despair . . . Beat upward to God's throne" recalls Wordsworth's sonnet, where the utterance "Dear God!" signals, however ambivalently, the very upward turn that Barrett denies.
The "deep-hearted man" whom Barrett instructs may well designate the Wordsworthian speaker who naively exclaimed, "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!" (my italics). Her repeated allusion to "men" as those in need of teaching ("That only men incredulous of despair," "deep-hearted man") echoes Wordsworth's recurring masculine pronouns ("Dull would he be," "In his first splendour," "at his own sweet will"), suggesting that these masculine embodiments are all in need of correction by a potentially female speaker who claims to understand better the non-recuperative silence of grief ("I tell you") (my italics).
Barrett's extension of "full desertness" from "countries" to "souls" recalls Wordsworth's "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by /A sight so touching in its majesty" (my italics). Wordsworth's "silent, bare" landscape might seem touching to one who is not "dull of soul." But Barrett's "silent-bare" grief refers to the desertness of souls as well as to that of countries, for her grieving silence looks like death itself, and her speechless mourner, who stands in for both poet and poetic language, is also death-like, unable to cry or to move. Still, Barrett's use of simile should not be oversimplified. She writes that "poetry resembles grief" and her sonnet on grief bears out this identification: "in silence Like to death," "most like a monumental statue" (my italics). But while grief imitates silence and silence mimics death, poetry should not be equated with silence and death through its identification with grief. Nor is poetry truly silent. Rather, Barrett proposes that poetry stands in metaphorical rela tion to these terms without being equivalent to them; its task is to act like silence while it speaks or sings.
Where Wordsworth's exclamation, "Dear God!," reaches beyond the scope of his poem in a haunting (because finally unsuccessful) invocation of the divine, Barrett turns inward to her poem's form: "Touch it." Entreating the reader to "touch" the statue that functions as a metaphor for her own poem, she re-states Wordsworth's "sight so touching." One cannot in the end touch Barrett's crumbling metaphor for grief any more than one can come into contact with the sight of Wordsworth's dead City. But both poets make evident poetry's incarnative potential: Wordsworth's sonnets incarnate the mind in contemplation of its own absence, and Barrett's incarnate pure absence itself.
Both Wordsworth and Barrett explore poetry's ghostliness in their sonnets; both poets negotiate the interplay between representation and incarnation. In both cases, sonnets indirectly address the poets as well as their poetic language: Wordsworth's silent City/Language and the poet who traverses it are both to some extent dead; Barrett's monumental poet/language is made of stone, unable to breathe or to speak. However, a key difference separates their respective approaches. Where the Wordsworthian sublime effects the transition from one kind of silence to another (from non-recuperative to recuperative silence, representation to incarnation, and back again) Barrett eliminates his form of the sublime altogether. Instead, silence in her grieving sonnets functions as complete nothingness. Retreating further and further inward to the core of their own speechlessness, these sonnets nonetheless produce inscriptions for a language that will never overcome its own intrinsic death, not even momentarily by means of a su blime revelation. Her sonnets are thus uncannily modern, more like Mallarme's eerie non-representational work than Wordsworth's troubled sublime.
Barrett's reconsideration of the sublime leads to important consequences. In her 1844 sonnets, there is no turn outward and upward, no nature at all, no mind, no divine. There is only the folding and re-folding of poetry over itself. What the 1844 sonnets portray is not nature; nor is it Wordsworth's relationship between thought and the world as thought. Instead, it is the mere inability to think, to project into the world, to speak.
Like "Grief," Barrett's 1844 sonnet "Irreparableness" mourns the death of a Wordsworthian vision of poetic language:
Irreparableness I have been in the meadows all the day And gathered there are nosegay that you see, Singing within myself as bird or bee When such do field-work on a morn of May. But, now I look upon my flowers, decay Has met them in my hands more fatally Because more warmly clasped,--and sobs are free To come instead of songs. What do you say, Sweet counsellors, dear friends? that I should go Back straightway to the fields and gather more? Another, sooth, may do it, but not I! My heart is very tired, my strength is low, My hands are full of blossoms plucked before, Held dead within them till myself shall die.
While many of Wordsworth's sonnets explore the absorption of grief into the sublime, and still others examine the theme of nature's seasonal renewal, the sonnet I have printed below serves as an instructive counterpart to "Irreparableness";
September, 1815 While not a leaf seems faded; while the fields, With ripening harvest prodigally fair, In brightest sunshine bask; this nipping air, Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields His icy scimitar, a foretaste yields Of bitter change, and bids the flowers beware; And whispers to the silent birds, 'Prepare Against the threatening foe your trustiest shields.' For me, who under kindlier laws belong To Nature's tuneful quire, this rustling dry Through leaves yet green, and yon crystaline sky, Announce a season potent to renew, 'Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song, And nobler cares than listless summer knew.
Wordsworth's sonnet typically begins with an apparent plenitude (conveyed, just as in his sonnet on Westminster Bridge, through negation)--"While not a leaf seems faded; while the fields,/with ripening harvest prodigally fair"--and then reveals that this fullness in fact covers up for death: "this nipping air, / Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields / His icy scimitar, a foretaste yields / Of bitter change." Like many of his other sonnets, this poem enacts, on one level, the discovery of a revelatory quality in loss itself. In the sestet (like "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"), the delayed emergence of the lyric "I" coincides with the realization of potency and renewal: "For me, who under kindlier laws belong / to Nature's tuneful quire, this rustling dry I Through leaves yet green, and yon crystaline sky, / Announce a season potent to renew." Nature is here transposed into the arena of thought ("Nature's tuneful quire") and the persona can look upon the seasonal death of nature as the mi nd's own inevitable and continual death. Both of these deaths might be perpetually overcome, Wordsworth suggests, through self-consciousness, as the mind projects itself onto nature while at the same time distancing from it. This glimpse of death thus proves more conducive to poetry ("the instinctive joys of song") than presence and changelessness.
As in the sonnet on Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth's seeming revelation leads back to an emptiness at the end; with its homophonic resonance, the word "knew" which closes the sonnet reminds us of how "listless summer" must itself be made "new," transplanting the poet out of his "tuneful quire" into a state of vacancy in which no voice rouses "the silent birds." The poem's conclusion thus sets into motion the process of death out of which the speaker will emerge, bewildered, into song.
The opening of Barrett's "Irreparableness" is similar to that of Wordsworth's sonnet. Her first quatrain, with its flowers and song, recalls Wordsworth's lines, "With ripening harvest prodigally fair, / In brightest sunshine bask." Just as Wordsworth introduces "this nipping frost," Barrett's speaker explains how "decay has met [her flowers]." The poems thus resemble each other in terms of their initial structures. But glaring differences appear in their sestets. Wordsworth's cheerful (albeit threatened) inhabitant of "Nature's tuneful quire" contrasts sharply with Barrett's inconsolable persona who will not transform death into regeneration. Wordsworth's sense of death is in part that it "announce[s] a season potent to renew." But Barrett's loss is absolutely irrevocable.
While seeming to provide a straight-forward example of Barrett's investment in non-recuperative silence, "Irreparableness" is also a difficult poem to read. The poem's first addressee, "you," who "see[s]" a nosegay may or may not see what the speaker does when the speaker and not the reader looks at her dead flowers: "I look upon my flowers, decay" (my italics). Furthermore, the initial addressee is replaced by or extended into "sweet counselors, dear friends" who give the speaker advice as to her predicament. But the adjective "sweet" here relates back to the scent of the living flowers in the meadow. There is thus great complexity as to the identity of the poem's addressee, what this addressee sees, and the status of the various flowers the poem invokes. Are they alive or dead?
One could argue that the flowers in question are both alive and dead. The speaker's failure to unite with nature leads to a death, which poetry may, if nothing else, make visible: "the [dead] nosegay that you see." But this decayed, embodied nature is also granted a voice, a life. For poetry might not be equivalent to silence and death but, as established before, it might operate metaphorically for these terms.
There is, however, a further dimension to the "sweet counselors, dear friends" whom the speaker asks for advice: an echo from Barrett's 1838 sonnet, "To Mary Russell Mitford in her garden"--"Benignant friend, I will not proudly say / As better poets use, 'These flowers I lay,' / Because I would not wrong thy roses sweet" (my italics). If in her sonnet to Mitford, Barrett ironizes conventional femininity, in "Irreparableness" this dismissiveness is shown to culminate in impotence and death. The renunciation of femininity/nature (coy in her sonnet to Mitford -- "I will not proudly say") results in failure and grief ("I have been in the meadows all the day...But, now I look upon my flowers, decay").
As in Barrett's letter to Mitford, written at the same time as the composition of "Irreparableness," the resemblance between poetry and grief is apparent here, but this time with a twist. Barrett's claim that poetry "resembles grief...but does so singing instead of sighing," that "it transfigures the great humanity into the sense of its To-come," is completely reversed in "Irreparableness" in which "sobs are free / To come instead of songs" (my italics). Poetry, it seems, does not only imitate grief; it presents grief by enacting its own petrification into "everlasting watch and moveless woe."
In "Irreparableness," it is as if Barrett turns to Mitford herself (her "benignant friend") for help with a problem that her dismissal of Mitford in 1838 has in a sense brought about. Generalizing this unique addressee into multiple "sweet counsellors, dear friends," she echoes her previous sonnets conflation of woman with flowers (i.e. with nature and art): "I would not wrong thy roses sweet." Since this living, feminized nature doubles as a dead bouquet, Barrett implies that the presentation of nature (or of anything in the external world) is an impossible task for poetry. At the same time, she makes an incarnative claim: failure is itself rendered Visible--"the [lifeless] nosegay that you see." But because these flowers continue to exhibit a potential for speech ("what do you say?"), they disturb her sonnet as a specter of Mitford's "nature-true," feminized words and also as a reminder of the "branches and buds out of Wordsworth's garden" that she has given over to the Muses so that they can "secure the sp routing." Barrett's opposition to Mitford's femininity and to Wordsworth's sublime does not remove, but rather reinscribes, the pressure these forces exert on her work.
A later sonnet, Barrett's "Sonnet XIII" from Sonnets from the Portuguese, brings into focus her interrogation of gender from 1844:
XIII And wilt thou have me fashion into speech The love I bear thee, finding words enough, And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough, Between our faces, to cast light on each?-- I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach My hand to hold my spirit so far off From myself--me--that I should bring thee proof In words, of love hid in me out of reach. Nay, let the silence of my womanhood Commend my woman-love to thy belief,-- Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed, And rend the garment of my life, in brief, By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude, Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.
This sonnet echoes Barrett's 1844 revisions of Wordsworth. The octave begins with a refusal to speak that ends up suggesting inability. "I drop it at thy feet" shifts to "I cannot teach." This difficulty arises from a limitation intrinsic to representational language's role as a distancing act: "My hand to hold my spirit so far off/From myself-me--." This is a familiar opening. In the sestet, Barrett links incarnation to femininity--"the silence of my womanhood"--which permits a paradoxical visibility: "Seeing that I stand unwon" (my italics). (31)
What is atypical about this sonnet, however, is how grief is explicitly excluded from the poem: "Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief." The discernible silence of the speaker's "womanhood" is only related to grief in that it reflects the divisiveness, the gaps, of representational language in general: "hold my spirit so far off"; "that I stand un[one]."
In this sense, incarnation is not necessarily tied to femininity as such; it is an intrinsic part of the failure and refusal to speak that all poetry plays Out: the torch of discursive speech is dropped, extinguished, and in the darkness we see language's bright holes. Masculinity appears to reside in the obscurity that persists after representational language has been rejected and femininity in the perceptible silence that emerges out of this darkness. But as this silence reveals both the constraints and the clarity of the language that has fallen away, the feminine/masculine polarity breaks down into tropological circulation.
The insight that "Sonnet XIII" offers to our reading of Barrett's sonnet poetics is how biological gender--the particularity of the body-- contains true grief, true unspeakability, as opposed to the silence that appears in poetry as visible absence and loss. Poetry may present grief-- an act that involves Wordsworthian self-consciousness ("you see"; "now I look"): in the leaping and turning sonnet structure, we catch a backward/forward glimpse of our own graves. But unlike Wordsworth, Barrett directs her sight not from the world at the end of the world, from life at death and back again; she gazes from beyond the grave at the gravestone, from the end of the world at a world that has died.
Barrett's statue that may already have crumbled but that she commands us to "touch" and her decayed flowers that we "see" only contain poetry's central grief, she suggests, in their tie to an invisible gender that we will never find words for or catch sight of although poetry stretches it out to us-- "held dead"--with full hands. We will never see her "womanheart beat," feel her touch. Barrett knows this is a grief that poetry protects us from--the grief of the body, of the gendered hand ("see here it is/I hold it towards you," Keats said)--and at the same time frighteningly invites us to think about. (32)
(1.) Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Harcourt Brace, 1927, rpt. 1955), p. 121.
(2.) Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd, May 10, 1841, Elizabeth Barrett to Mr. Boyd: Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Hugh Stuart Boyd, ed. Barbara McCarthy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1955), p. 239.
(3.) Elizabeth Barrett, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke, 6 vols. (New York: Crowell, 1900), 2:136, stanza 43.
(4.) As Esther Schor argues, Wordsworth himself "would use [Gray's] Sonnet's central figure of thought, the elegiac topos of the failed response, as the motivating trope of the Intimations Ode" (Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994], p. 57). In her critique of Wordsworth, Barrett may indirectly echo the elegiac sonnets that his work at once dismisses and embeds.
(5.) It would have been difficult for Barrett not to think of Wordsworth's "Peele Castle" (published in 1807) when her own brother drowned in 1840. As I will discuss later, it was at this point in her career that her relationship with Wordsworth became especially intense. See "Elegiac Stanzas: Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle" in Poetical Works of Wordsworth, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), p. 452.
(6.) In "On the Negativity of Modern Poetry: Friedrich, Baudelaire, and the Critical Tradition," Jonathan Culler identifies two approaches to negativity in the western tradition: a model that "prepare[s] for aesthetic recuperation" and a non-recuperative sort that he relates to de Man's view of the "unpredictable play of the letter" as well as to Derrida's reading of the Platonic khora (Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989], p. 205).
(7.) As Mary Russell Mitford made public, "this tragedy [of her brother's drowning] nearly killed Elizabeth Barrett"; she had insisted against her father's will that Edward stay by her bedside in Torquay, therefore feeling herself to be the cause of his nearby death (Recollections of a Literary Life [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1852], pp. 170-171).
(8.) Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), p. 79.
(9.) Barrett to Martin, August 1851, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic Kenyon (London, 1897), 2:14.
(10.) Barrett to Mary Russell Mitford, March 27-28, 1842, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan (The Browning Institute: Wedgestone Press and Wellesley College, 1983), 1:378; Barrett to R. H. Home, October 5, 1843, Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to R. H. Home, ed. S. Townsend Mayer, 2 vols. (London, 1877) 1:163.
(11.) Barrett to Mitford, November 18,1841, To Mary Russell Mitford, 1:307; Leighton, p. 81.
(12.) Barrett to Mitford, November 18, 1841, To Mary Russell Mitford, 1:307.
(13.) Barrett to Benjamin Haydon, November 5, 1842, Invisible Friends: The Correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Benjamin Robert Hayden, 1842-1845, ed. William Bissell Pope (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 8-9.
(14.) Barrett to George Barrett, July 13, 1843, Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett, ed. Paul Landis (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1958), p. 105.
(15.) Barrett to Mitford, December 13, 1842, To Mary Russell Mitford, 2:119.
(16.) Barrett to Mitford, October 19, 1842, To Mary Russell Mitford, 2:52.
(17.) Paul Oppenheimer argues that in its origin the Italian sonnet broke away from medieval poetic forms through its division into octave and sestet (The Birth of the Modem Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 19891, p. 3).
(18.) Oppenheimer disputes the sonnet's supposed musical status, illustrating how the sonnet moves not toward but away from an already existing song form (Oppenheimer, pp. 186-187). While Barrett believed poetry differed from grief in its "singing" nature, she persistently called this assumption into question through her use of the sonnet form.
(19.) Barrett to Boyd, October31, 1842, Letters, ed. Kenyon, 1:113.
(20.) Barrett to George Barrett, September 11,1842, To George Barrett, p.86.
(21.) Barrett's 1838 sonnet to Mitford deprecates, "I will not proudly say / As better poets, 'these flowers I lay,'" and her final Portuguese sonnet concludes, "take [these verses], as I used to do / Thy flowers" ("To Mary Russell Mitford in her Garden," 3:61, 11. 23; "Sonnet XLIV," 4:78, 11. 11-12).
(22.) Barrett to Martin, October 22,1842, Letters, 1:112-113.
(23.) In her sonnet to Haydon, Barrett echoes Wordsworth's own sonnets to the same painter--in particular, one published in 1816 that identifies the painter's skill with the poet's own, beginning "High is our calling, Friend!" and another on Haydon's picture of Napoleon: "the one Man that laboured to enslave / The World" much like the "unguilty Power" of the sun. See "To B. R. Haydon" and "To B. R. Haydon, On Seeing his Picture of Napoleon Buonaparte on the Island of St. Helena," pp. 207, 220.
(24.) I take issue here with Jerome Mazzaro's opposing claim; where Mazzaro stresses Barrett's interest in sublimity, I see her interest as a framework for revision and critique ("Mapping Sublimity: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese," Essays in Literature 18, no. 2 : 166-179).
(25.) J. Hillis Miller, The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), p. 74.
(26.) The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. A. B. Grosart (London, 1876), 2:64; Karen Mills-Courts, Poetry as Epitaph: Representation and Poetic Language (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1990).
(27.) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 5.
(28.) In order to help him appreciate Wordsworth's poetry, Barrett writes to her former Greek tutor, Hugh Stuart Boyd, "Read first, to put you into good humour, the sonnet written on Westminster Bridge (Barrett to Boyd, October 31, 1842, Letters, ed. Kenyon, 1:113-114).
(29.) Wordsworth's sonnet abounds in death references: the "deep" calmness, the disinterest of nature ("at his own sweet will"), the "very houses" that "seem asleep," the stillness of "all that mighty heart," the exclamation to God, as if in despair.
(30.) Clearly, Wordsworth's City is "bare" in its link to death, but the extricability of silence from bareness here is also indicative of the oscillating motion his poetry enacts.
(31.) The words "Seeing that" fall at the exact place in "Sonnet XIII" as "We see thy woman-heart" from Barrett's sonnet to George Sand, "A Recognition" (my italics).
(32.) "This Living Hand, now Warm and Capable" in John Keats: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, ed. Elizabeth Cook (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), 11. 7- 8, p. 331. Interesting work could be done on Barrett's revisions of the sublime as mediated by Keats' own rewriting of Wordsworthian tropes.
AMY BILLONE is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She has published articles on Baudelaire and Mallarme and on Charlotte Smith, and is currently completing a book-length manuscript on silence and women sonneteers.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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