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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: translating the language of intimacy.

The poet who famously bemoaned her lack of literary grandmothers was not lacking in gratefully acknowledged male forebears, particularly Shakespeare and Homer, whom she describes as the "colossal borderers of the two intellectual departments of the world's age ... the antique and modern literatures." (1) But her relationship with those figures, as she acknowledges through Aurora Leigh's encounters with earlier poets, has to be carefully managed, the possibility of her dependent and derivative status scrupulously recognized:
 My own best poets, am I one with you,
 That thus I love you,--or but one through love?
 Does all this smell of thyme about my feet
 Conclude my visit to your holy hill
 In personal presence, or but testify
 The rustling of your vesture through my dreams
 With influent odours? (2)

That such encounters are effected through her father's "Books, books, books" (1: 832) underlines the perils of the female poet's seeking to claim a part within a literary history told mainly through its published male poets.

This essay examines diverse dimensions of the relationship between EBB and Shakespeare, assessing her responses to the earlier writer in the light of her fascination with the playwright and poet, and in particular with his depictions of young women. I consider the fascination wrought by the daughters in Shakespeare's plays and the extent to which EBB was herself lauded and constrained by the accolade of being a fit candidate for Shakespeare's daughter. I will examine the strategic manipulations involved in according the accolade "Shakespearean" to a woman writer, the ways in which EBB both recognizes and resists the lure and the straitjacketing of such a term, and how instead she effects a "dialectic of trust" in her reading and writing of Shakespeare.

The phrase is George Steiner's, and alludes to the mode of translation: it is a "dialectic of trust, of reciprocal enhancement [which] is, in essence, both moral and linguistic ... it is an instrument of relation." (3) In these terms, I would argue, we might also most aptly speak of EBB's relationship to Shakespeare. She is not a servile and circumscribed transcriber of his words, but rather one who makes his reputation anew by her attention to, and quotation from, his works. Her quotations from and allusions to Shakespeare, which are most notable and frequent in her correspondence, are acts that can usefully balance and accommodate the recognition of historical difference and contemporary exigency and that emphasize transmission and sympathetic interrelation. The model of translation suspends both authors in a delicate relationship of mutual recognition and co-existence, of cooperation, and potential creativity. It signals the enriching of the source within a new set of resonances, rather than the wresting of power from the original source, and it highlights the intellectual and creative activity which accrues to the translator. From this intimate relationship, EBB achieves a language of intimacy in which to speak to her closest friends and her lover Robert Browning. It is a language which enables her, through role playing, through the license of shared knowledge and almost silent allusion, to find a means of articulation trammelled neither by Victorian conventions nor by expectations, which allows for the exposure of private thoughts in a context which subtly protects and cherishes the speaker.

In Aurora Leigh and her Sonnets from the Portuguese, Shakespeare's presence is perhaps most visible in EBB's poetry. Shakespeare's sonnets linger unavoidably in the mind as one reads EBB's own sonnet sequence, and yet, what precisely is the relationship between the two sequences? Dorothy Mermin argues that Shakespeare's sonnets are one of the many contexts for EBB's poems, which also include the Iliad and Milton's sonnets. (4) Other recent critics have paused only briefly over the name of Shakespeare in writing of EBB's Sonnets, stressing rather the extent to which, as Angela Leighton points out, she is characteristically concerned with making over a tradition, the better to articulate her female, nineteenth-century consciousness. (5) The challenges are only too obvious: she not only has to tackle formal issues, but the assumption at the heart of the sonnet tradition that the woman is traditionally placed as the beloved, and not the speaker. That she is speaking of another poet as the beloved also puts her in the tricky position of having to write of one who can speak for himself, rather than as one occupying the traditionally mute subject-position of muse and inspiration. Shakespeare may seem to act primarily as a stimulus to a range of expectations which are not met in EBB's work.

Yet, her sonnets contain some distinct echoes of Shakespeare; for instance, as Dorothy Mermin notes (p. 138), we hear sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments") (6) in EBB's sonnet 2:
 Men could not part us with their worldly jars,--
 Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests, bend;
 Our hands would touch, for all the mountain bars;--
 And, heaven being rolled between us, at the end:
 We should but vow the faster, for the stars (7)

We can also hear Romeo and Juliet in the image of the beloved looking down at the "poor, tired, wandering singer" of sonnet 3, and Ophelia's doomed fate in the images of the poet's fearing to "sink" in sonnet 4, and in her retrieval of the flower-imagery associated with Ophelia in sonnet 44:
 Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers
 Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
 And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
 In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
 So, in the like name of that love of ours,
 Take back these thoughts which here, unfolded too,
 And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
 From my heart's ground. (Indeed, those beds and bowers
 Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
 And wait thy weeding; yet here's eglantine,
 Here's ivy!)--take them, as I used to do
 Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine,
 Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
 And tell thy soul their roots are left in mine.

But Shakespeare's images of powerless despair are transmuted by EBB into the signs of her love. The folkloric significations which are Ophelia's only means of telling her despair become EBB's means of reaching out to Browning, telling her love in ways which invite his participation too as the cultivator of her words.

She makes some of Shakespeare's most plangent symbols into the signs of her love, but transforms them in her speaking them as a woman, finally retrieving the silence of some of Shakespeare's heroines, and transforming the tradition by its immersion in the particularities of her female modernity. For instance, instead of the passion of earlier sonneteers, we read in sonnet 38 of the intimacy of the individual kisses first given to EBB:
 First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
 The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
 And ever since, it grew more clean and white,

 The second passed in height
 The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,
 Half falling on the hair.
 The third, upon my lips was folded down
 In perfect, purple state. (ll. 1-3, 7-9, 12-13)

Delicacy and specificity are the key-notes of the whole sonnet sequence's description of Victorian ardor, rather than the "difficult and fumbling affair" that Erik Gray finds it. (8) EBB's sonnets also work within a different time-frame. Shakespeare is convinced that his sonnets can confer immortality, both on his love, his lover, and the poetry itself, whereas for EBB, death is not an ending, but the beginning of love's after-life in a specifically Christian heaven.

Though contemporary critics were relieved at the discipline which the sonnet form might force EBB into (see below), these sonnets are nonetheless, and particularly when compared with Shakespeare's beautifully complete conceits, straining and full of effort in their attempts to convey an experience of love which the sonnet had not yet encompassed, the love of a Victorian woman poet for a contemporary writer. She seems to find the consolations of the form as exploited by Shakespeare unsatisfactory for her own ends and rather transmutes them into efforts to realize the visceral effect of her passion, its roots in a familial love, and in trying to find a form of accommodation for her and for Browning's poetry.

In the case of both the Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh, EBB takes a moment or an inspiration from Shakespeare and transposes it into a new setting, translates it for another world, rather than appropriating it or taking it over. Her words work best when read alongside, in full knowledge of, the original which inspires them. EBB is not aiming at what her character describes as "lifeless imitations" (AL, 1.974) of older poets, but rather at a poetics which is "the witness of what Is / Behind this show" (7.834-835). She goes on explicitly to repudiate imitation:
 If this world's show were all,
 Then imitation would be all in Art;
 There, Jove's hand grips us!--For we stand here, we,
 If genuine artists, witnessing for God's
 Complete, consumate, undivided work:
 --That every natural flower which grows on earth,
 Implies a flower upon the spiritual side,
 Substantial, archetypal, all a-glow
 With blossoming causes. (7.835-843)

I would suggest that EBB's use of Shakespeare involves a similar form of transference. Just as she Platonically translates God's work from the spiritual to the material world, writing of it so that it may be seen as being immanent in that material sphere, while the original persists unperturbed and discrete, so do Shakespeare's words inhabit EBB's poem. Shakespeare's works are both of the past and of the present within EBB's poetry. They live within, and give life to her words, where her source is discernibly Shakespearean. In turn her words bear witness to Shakespeare's creative richness, but from another sphere and another century, which do not seek to supersede Shakespeare's own place and authority but simply to make them available, in some sense to translate them, for EBB's contemporaries. This "double articulation," to borrow Richard Halpern's phrase, draws attention to both EBB's own innovations and the persistence of Shakespeare alongside EBB's own voice. (9)

The achievement of this relationship within Aurora Leigh takes place in parallel with a similar resolution within Aurora's relationship with the figure of the eponymous poet's father who has haunted the poem since his death. Aurora's return to Italy is a necessary step in achieving her eventual acceptance of her orphaned state and her decision no longer to seek for meaning primarily through the past. Indeed, the invoking of Shakespeare in some measure disputes the relative positions and connotations of past and present, specifically those which might site authority, judgment, and superiority within the past. In Book One of the poem, Shakespeare had been associated with the father-figure. In Aurora's description of her father's teaching her, we hear echoes of Prospero's instruction of Miranda:
 My father taught me what he had learnt the best
 Before he died and left me,--grief and love.

 out of books,
 He taught me all the ignorance of men,
 And how God laughs in heaven when any man
 Says "Here I'm learned." (1.185-192)

And later Aurora comes to believe that "I thought my father's land was worthy too / Of being my Shakespeare's" (1.1091-92), despite her initial incredulity on arriving from Italy that "Shakespeare and his mates" were able to "Absorb the light here" (1.266-267). Shakespeare initially carries the weight and resonance of that paternal authority, but as the poem progresses, he comes to be more firmly associated with the person of Aurora and with emotional, rather than pedagogic, possibilities: "God has made me,--I've a heart / That's capable of worship, love, and loss; / We say the same of Shakespeare's" (7.734-746). The unmediated directness of the analogy with Shakespeare here is one more sign of Aurora's growing maturity and her emotional as well as literary deviation from the coercive influence of her father's memory.

A crucial part of the narrative of Aurora Leigh is, then, the achievement of an enabling relationship with those literary predecessors who inform EBB's poetics. The poem is, in a sense, its own witness to the success of this project. However, the question of literary debts and precedents, and specifically her relationship with Shakespeare, was not so easily settled for EBB's critics, as the concentration on those questions in a range of obituaries and memorial articles on the poet demonstrates. They are concerned to reveal where responsibility for her achievements lies, be it with her husband or the other writers whom she read. A year after her death, the North American Review was asserting that Aurora Leigh "was written, not by Elizabeth Barrett, but by Browning's wife," and made of the epic tale simply a "story of love, as it lay concealed in the heart of a woman, to rise in overmastering strength at the fulness of time." (10) In the same year, the Dublin University Magazine asserts that "she would never have reached so high a point if she had not married a great poet." (11) The greater EBB's achievement, the greater her reliance on Browning; the broader her reading, the greater her indebtedness to a range of predecessors.

The evaluation of EBB's "genius" inevitably involves extended comparisons with Shakespeare, both in general terms, but also on the grounds of their sonnet sequences. EBB's Sonnets were regarded by some critics, including William T. Arnold and Edmund Gosse, as her best works. For Mary Russell Mitford and the North American Review, respectively, the Sonnets were "glowing with passion, melting with tenderness. True love was never more fitly sung" than in them, making them "the finest love poems in our language." (12) As Tricia Lootens notes in her study of the critical reception of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, however, they are far from typical poems about love, revealing psychological peculiarities in EBB's position which would have been shared by few readers. (13) Indeed, for G. B. Smith, in the Cornhill Magazine, the Sonnets "are more explanatory" of "her own very distinct individuality" "than any other of her writings. (14) Yet, for most critics, the Sonnets offered an opportunity for comparing EBB with other poets which the rest of her determinedly more experimental oeuvre precludes. The sonnet form offers a measure. The rigorousness of the form was felt by Arnold, Gosse, and G. B. Smith to discipline EBB's more accustomed exuberance of imagery and the "loose, wild form" of her lyrics, which were "fit to receive her chains of adverbial caprices and her tempestuous assonances." (15) More specifically, Gosse adds that "her love of Shakespeare and Wordsworth drove her to emulation" (p. 6), while for W. H. Smith, she equalled or exceeded those figures: "we will venture to say--if we may reduce our general praise to a numerical specification--that from no English writer, with the exception perhaps of Wordsworth, shall you select half-a-dozen sonnets so excellent as you might with ease extract from these volumes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In saying this we do not forget that Shakespeare wrote sonnets." (16)

Shakespeare's sonnets could be, as Smith goes on to suggest, problematic for the Victorians, in terms of attribution and subject-matter. As Gosse writes in the more self-conscious 1890s, EBB's are "more wholesome" in treating of "a mood that [by comparison with Shakespeare's] is not rare and almost sickly, not foreign to the common experience of mankind, but eminently normal, direct, and obvious" (p. 10). As Lootens notes, "If Gosse terms Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'wholesome' Sonnets more 'intelligible,' it is clearly because ... they express a love that dares to speak its name" (Lootens, p. 143).

Long before the 1890s, however, Shakespeare's was a name which could readily be invoked both to praise and to delimit a woman writer's achievements. The North British Review critic begins his assessment of EBB's works by asserting that woman "has not yet produced her Shakspeare, her Newton, her Bacon, her Handel; and most likely never will" (p. 514). Of EBB in particular, he writes that she is "so much in earnest, that she cannot hide her efforts to grasp reality," whereas with Shakespeare, "All is," in that most fundamentally loaded term, "natural, and like the working of natural forces without personal effort. He is so perfectly en rapport with his work, that his mastery over it seems as natural as play" (pp. 530-531). For the North American Review, she "was not, indeed, another Shakespeare, but she came nearest to being Shakespeare's counterpart" (p. 353). The precise nature of that relationship remains to be specified here, but was given a name in the following decade by the American critic E. C. Stedman. His account of EBB works on two axes which he somehow needs to bring together into fruitful relationship: she is both the best-educated of women poets who spent "her novitiate in the academic groves and at the fountain-heads of poetry and thought" and the woman in whose life "the chief event ... was her marriage." (17) Within his description of her as "Shakespeare's daughter" that resolution, between academic and literary learning, and domestic inspiration, is achieved in a neat synthesis of appropriate femininity. He writes: "The English love to call her Shakespeare's Daughter, and in truth she bears to their greatest poet the relation of Miranda to Prospero. Her delicate genius was purely feminine and subjective, attributes that are made to go together" (p. 147). This suggestion was taken up by G. B. Smith in the Cornhill who, after having rejected a number of comparisons between EBB and her contemporaries as unsatisfactory, expanded on the conceit thus:
 That was a happy observation passed upon by one critic,
 who described her as Shakspeare's daughter. The same
 large-heartedness which pertained to the great dramatist is
 shown by the later poet. The benevolent eye looks out on men and
 nature with the same imperishable love. If the world has at any
 time possessed its ideal poets, she is worthy to be counted one
 of them. (p. 475)

But a sting lies hidden in this particular compliment: "We can feel that her genius stands in the same relation to that of the transcendent poet of the world as does a daughter to her parent. The lesser is the true miniature representation of the greater" (p. 480).

In some respects, of course, these critics are simply taking up the suggestion made by EBB herself in Aurora Leigh about the conjunction between Shakespeare and the poet's father, but they ignore the concomitant development in the poem which shows the poet explicitly, and necessarily, outgrowing the familial dimension--specifically the obedience of a daughter--to evolve her own aesthetic. The apparent accolade traps her within a dynamic of preordained limits, of emulation and imitation, which her own poetry was constantly seeking to override. As would have been readily appreciated in the 1870s, by which time the story of EBB's upbringing was well known, the family metaphor also operates with a particularly coercive resonance in the case of EBB.

Stedman's explicit reference to the relationship of Prospero and Miranda is worth investigating further. The peculiarities of that relationship are extreme, though echoed in other of Shakespeare's plays, where the daughter's function is often crucial, (18) but revealing about what was currently believed about EBB. For twelve of Miranda's fifteen years, she had lived alone with her father save for the presence of Caliban and Ariel. She depended on him for all language, learning, and practically all her company. Through his authority as a father, and his skill as a magician, he controlled her environment, her knowledge, and her interactions with others. That both fathers are also implicated in slavery, in the mistreatment of Caliban and in the ownership of slaves on the Barretts' Jamaican plantations, solidifies the authoritarian nature of these fathers' relationships with their daughters. Prospero attempts to orchestrate Miranda's relationship with Ferdinand, but finds the limit of his powers when he is forced to realize the autonomy generated in her by Miranda's love for another man:
 Ferdinand. What is your name?
 Miranda. Miranda.--O my father!
 I have broke your hest to say so. (III.i.36-37)

Among the gallery of disobedient daughters created by Shakespeare, this is a relatively minor offense, and, as Charles and Mary Lamb note, in some ways simply furthers Prospero's plans: "Prospero only smiled at this first instance of his daughter's disobedience, for having by his magic art caused his daughter to fall in love so suddenly, he was not angry that she showed her love by forgetting to obey his commands." (19) To insert EBB into this narrative is to suggest that, like Miranda, she was effectively at the behest of her father until Robert Browning came along, to tempt her to speak out of turn, albeit without Mr. Browning's connivance. So not only does EBB gain a determining father-figure in Stedman's allusion, but also a husband to usurp the father's place in the normal course of things. (20)

Anna Jameson's account of Miranda highlights the ways in which she shares in EBB's early isolation from society and the extent to which the poet had been known to be emotionally declarative. Jameson writes of Miranda that "she has never caught from society one imitated or artificial grace," and celebrates her apparently naive giving of herself to Ferdinand by suggesting that Miranda was: "Only conscious of her own weakness as a woman, and ignorant of those usages of society which teach us to dissemble the real passion, and assume (and sometimes abuse) an unreal and transient power." (21) In EBB's case, the iconic status of Miranda works to naturalize and smooth out an intractability by which earlier critics had been troubled, and to re-write EBB's canon as a de-politicized one of love poems and Aurora Leigh, which, though self-described as "unscrupulously epic" (5.213), is molded into a more tractable and tamer autobiographical shape. The ultimate irony is that, via this analogy with Miranda, EBB could ultimately be re-written, recuperated, as the dutiful daughter which she had notoriously not been.

The image of Shakespeare's daughters could also work in reverse, however, making of the playwright's creations more dutiful daughters within a Victorian economy of the family. Such a result might plausibly seem to accrue from Mary Cowden Clarke's accounts of the girlhood of a number of Shakespeare's heroines. Originally published in 1850-51, her narrativized versions of the pre-life of fifteen of Shakespeare's women are particularly interesting in the ways in which they seek to anticipate the details of the lives to be revealed in Shakespeare's plays, to such an extent that they remove any possibility of agency from the women themselves. A small example of this is the way in which the double death of Romeo and Juliet is anticipated in her mother's witnessing a distraught young man's committing suicide on the bier of his secretly wed wife. The young heroines become blameless because they are so clearly the result of their upbringing. This is made particularly clear in the extent to which the heroines are the sums of their parents, one of whom is usually dotingly, neglectfully benevolent, while the other is equally dangerously coercive and strong-willed. The failure of parenting which results produces women who cannot help but live out the dynamics of the place assigned to them. Lady Macbeth's determined bloodthirstiness and ambition emerge out of her mother's thwarted ambition and her father's easygoing neglect of the opportunity to correct his daughter's political scheming by attaching her more firmly to him by ties of emotion and duty. Desdemona's deceit in secretly marrying Othello is engendered in her by her father's own clandestine marrying of her mother, and by that mother's various acts of subterfuge in seeking not to antagonize her choleric husband: "the courage of transparent truth ... that would have proved her best protection against the diabolical malignity by which she was one day to be assailed, and borne her scathless through the treachery which wrought her fate," were not taught her. (22) That a daughter can be blamelessly bad and/or disobedient seems to be the cumulative message of Cowden Clarke's work. Those daughters who dared to disobey were only fulfilling their fate and were being in fact perversely dutiful.

Trained in how to read Shakespeare at school, encouraged by Mary Cowden Clarke to speculate on her stories, which would "afford scope for pleasant fancy, and be productive of entertainment" (1: xi), and encouraged to emulate aspects of Shakespeare's heroines, Victorian women might, it is possible to argue, all be seen as, in some sense, Shakespeare's daughters. Such was clearly the determination of the actress Helen Faucit who chose to be parented by Shakespeare in her narrative of her early years, substituting him for the raffish and unreliable professional actors who were her biological parents. (23) Such would certainly seem to be the implication of Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies (1864), in which he famously invokes the "perfect woman" of almost every Shakespeare play: "steadfast in grave hope, and errorless purpose: Cordelia, Desdemona, Isabella, Hermione, Imogen, Queen Catherine, Perdita, Sylvia, Viola, Rosalind, Helena, and last, and perhaps loveliest, Virgilia." All, he goes on, are "faultless; conceived in the highest heroic type of humanity." (24) This is a highly selective list, and a highly selective vision, and one which excuses the sins of daughters such as Desdemona and Imogen in the light of their virtues as wives. It is also a list which notably excludes Ophelia, Shakespeare's "one weak woman," who fails Hamlet "at the critical moment" and on whom "the bitter catastrophe" of Hamlet is said to rest ([section] 58).

Within Shakespeare's orbit, these examples of Victorian readings seem to suggest, a daughter's disobedience is not necessarily a bad thing, in so far as it is seen to recognize a higher form of authority and the most readily invoked is that of Shakespeare. The suggestion that EBB is most appropriately fathered by Shakespeare is both an admission of her disobedience, emotional, familial, and generic, and of the need to place that disobedience within a carefully policed regime which can absorb acts of disobedience within an ultimately sanctioned framework. Such a framework was permitted to Shakespeare, who thus is made to act as both emotional and literary guarantor and jailer to EBB's love and creativity.

Within EBB's own writing, however, as we have seen, an entirely different kind of dialogue is being established between the two writers. As her letters show even more acutely than her poems, that dialogue emanates from within the familial setting, while eluding its conventional power structures. EBB's first recorded encounter with Shakespeare appears in a letter to her aunt Arabella Graham-Clarke, when at the age of eleven, she makes a joke about being an idle correspondent, then writes, "tho' perhaps 'rude am I in speech,' yet I can justify myself by repeating I do not love you less," quoting Othello, I.iii.81. (25) The identification with the spell-binding Othello, whose very rudeness, which he is defending before the Duke of Venice, is the source of the witchcraft which has seduced Desdemona away from her father, is an intriguing and proleptic instance of self-aggrandizement, in which EBB is both captivated by, and (through her act of quotation) the source of, a language of fascination. Othello continues to haunt her letters. It is one of the plays from which she quotes most frequently (the one most frequently referred to being Hamlet) in part perhaps because it enables her imaginative identification with a world absolutely beyond her own, the world of the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war" (Othello, III.iii.354), and with the battles she enthusiastically discussed as a young woman in letters with Uvedale Price (December 30, 1826; BC, 1:280; and January 11, 1827; BC, 2:4). It is, however, important to note that in the letters which quote Othello's despairing speech, in which he turns away from his vocation and claims he would have been happy for the "general camp" to have "tasted" Desdemona's body, "So I had nothing known" (III.iii.346-348), EBB is applying the words to her dog. Flush "does not seem to understand the glory of fighting-Whether through philosophy or good temper, 'the pomp and circumstance of glorious war' never move his ambition" (June 11, 1841; BC, 5:53), and he "turn[s] his back on the 'pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war'" (June 23, 1843; BC, 7:202). The usage acutely debunks Othello's self-pity and the grossness of his denial of Desdemona's dignity, while it also, in a maneuver typical of EBB, domesticates Shakespeare within her own world.

Shakespeare is a crucial part of the intimate language EBB and her family use to address each other in birthday poems and in letters where he provides a means of approaching the most delicate of subjects with tact and humor. On December 30, 1825, her mother writes to EBB: "The mind cannot retain its powers, if the casket which contains it, be injured or weakened, and you cannot encrease your hours of study, without sacrificing your health. You may think this 'stale and unprofitable' [Hamlet, I.ii.133] but it is the anxiety of our hearts dearest BA!" (BC, 1:229). The letter risks turning EBB's cherished literature against her, but its gentle and self-effacing humor, the very homeliness of her mother's concern, and the recuperation of Hamlet's despair within a family dynamic manage in fact simply to acknowledge that literature as being of a piece with the family's own love of EBB. The letter is also an instance of the variety of voices which are extracted from Hamlet in EBB's correspondence. She ironizes the play's words, in describing her own aching head as a "distracted globe" (November 4, 1841; BC, 5:162) from Hamlet, I.v.97, but also uses the play to write lovingly to numerous correspondents, including Mary Russell Mitford, to whom she writes that it is "'Stale and flat', to take more from Shakespeare" (Hamlet, I.ii.133), to talk by pen and ink rather than in person (November 8, 1844; BC 8:37). She is also fond of providing new and lighter contexts for Hamlet's "though by your smiling you may seem to say so," for instance in challenging Richard Hengist Horne's ironic amusement at the news that EBB was having a portrait of herself painted (June 13, 1841; BC, 5:56).

The affection and domesticity of these letters are echoed later by EBB as she seeks to distinguish between the competing dignities of love and familiarity and of title and position in a letter to Mitford, in which she uses her love of Shakespeare as an exemplar of the former: "Which of us wdnt. like to know how Shakespeare came down stairs one Wednesday morning with his hose ungartered? Wdnt. you climb your ladder ten times, to catch the colour of the garters?" (July 15, 1841; BC, 5:75). The ease and familiarity of her relationship with Mitford is both enabled by, and an extension of, her relations with Shakespeare. Her first letter to Mitford thanks her for "[naming] me as a 'household word' [Henry V, IV.iii.521 to your father" (June 8, 1836; BC, 3:175), and later that summer she writes: "For all the kindness, the far far too much kindness of your words to me, how can I thank you enough? Let me be silent, & love you" (September 29, 1836; BC, 3:192). The letter alludes to Cordelia's words to her father in King Lear, I.i.62-63, and is the first of EBB's references in her letters to the vexed question of women's voices, speaking, and silence in King Lear. The allusion here silently acknowledges EBB's affection, and also enacts a necessarily unspoken acknowledgement of the two women's shared experiences of living with demanding fathers. Furthermore, the allusion itself is silent, being without quotation marks, and thereby all the more delicately enacting its thanks. The omission of quotation marks enables a greater intimacy with Shakespeare as he seamlessly moves into the texture of EBB's own language, but it can also promote the intimacy between correspondents, as the recipient recognizes and responds to the Shakespearean offering placed before her, and the writer's trust that it would be recognized.

That Shakespeare in particular, among the many writers from whom EBB quotes, was a vehicle of intimacy is shown in the pattern of references to, and quotations from, him in EBB's correspondence. These references tend to cluster around the person with whom she was most intimate at any one time. From 1836 to 1845, this was Mitford, before she was succeeded by Robert Browning. (26) The first correspondent with whom EBB was intimately Shakespearean, however, was the blind Classical scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, with whom she studied, and who lived near the Barretts at Hope End. The relationship is both based in and conveyed through texts. Her visits to Boyd seem to have been rather an obsession with EBB. Relatively early in their relationship, she writes anticipating an imminent visit to the Boyd household, and continues, "You have made me very curious, & have induced me to think of many things in Heaven & Earth never dream't of in any PHILOSOPHY, since Cornelius Agrippa's!" (June 6-7, 1828; BC, 2:147). The quotation from Hamlet, I.v.166-67 inverts the intellectual relationship between the speaker and auditor of the original to flatter the older man, even to set up a form of intellectual flirtation with her tutor. (27) As is the case elsewhere, EBB uses Shakespeare to play, to act, to extend the range of roles and voices available to her.

For her, as for many women later in the century, EBB finds in Shakespeare a means of escape from the limitations and dimensions of her social, and even her literary, roles. She enjoys that freedom here while remaining confident and secure in her intellectual status, for her compliment only works if the knowledge in which it is based is acknowledged as being shared; and she is confident too that the freedoms permitted by the quotation are balanced by the distance also implicit in the use of someone else's words. Indeed the frisson of the letter, which would of course have been read to Boyd by his daughter or wife, rests in the fine judgment EBB expends in seeing how far she can go within boundaries while still acknowledging Shakespeare's mediating authority. The lack of quotation marks seems to signal the intimacy both of the relationship with Boyd and with Shakespeare that she is setting up here, rather than to seek to elide Shakespeare's part in the letter.

The relationship in play here is a three-way one, resting on a joint ownership of the language of the letter. Shakespeare retains ultimate authority and ownership of the words, his continuing presence investing EBB's quotations with distance and timelessness, or at least a temporal otherness, which is itself a crucial part of the freedom which Shakespeare gives to the nineteenth-century woman; EBB and Boyd actively meet in recognizing and interpreting the quotation; and EBB herself exercises her learning and autonomy in using Shakespeare, in re-making his words for her own ends, but in never entirely subduing the poet and the original context of his writing. As is so often the case in EBB's quoting from Shakespeare, her use of the quotation from Hamlet rests here upon a tacitly intended recognition of the force of the original context of the quotation and of the way in which EBB is adopting it here; the success of her allusion rests upon a mutual acknowledgement of the persistent otherness of Shakespeare's words. Furthermore, the shared intellectual activity of using and recognizing the allusion works as part of the force of her letters' meaning, as well as acting as the vehicle for developing her epistolary relationships through the mixture of intellectual and emotional interaction that seems for EBB to be peculiarly the essence of Shakespeare.

When reading EBB's correspondence, one is struck by two inter-related factors: first, how very intimate is the relationship between EBB and Shakespeare, the way it almost seems to inhabit her emotional being, as Shakespeare inhabits her written language. For EBB, Shakespeare is "inner than the bone." And secondly, we see how profoundly her Shakespeare is of the page, rather than the stage. Their relationship is one that can be brought into being only in intimacy. EBB writes skeptically of the more public forms in which the playwright was made available to Victorian audiences, whether in the undue speculation of publicly available criticism (28) or in the theater. For her, the latter can only involve the "translation [of poetry] into a grosser form" (to Hengist Horne, June 3, 1840; BC, 4:273). As she writes later to the same correspondent, himself a fervent believer that contemporary theater could be redeemed by Shakespeare, even that playwright bowed "his starry head" to "write down his pure genius into the dirt of the groundlings" (January 9, 1841; BC, 5:5). The following year she writes to Mitford, herself a successful playwright, again invoking the mechanism of interpretation, that:
 In regard to the drama, I have been to the theatre--I have seen
 Shakespeare in London--but it was when I was a young child: and I
 admit to you willingly that in reading & taking pleasure from the
 written Drama, my ideas of it never enter the theatre from first to
 last. I have a notion,--that the theatre interprets between the
 dramatic poet and the unpoetic multitudes,--& always where the
 poetry is high, desecrates it in translation. (July 4, 1842; BC,

We cannot, of course, be sure that what EBB was taken to see was Shakespeare, rather than one of the many adaptations which were more usually seen in the early nineteenth century, but what comes most clearly through her letter is her profound distrust of theatrical space, and of the unruly multitudes. (29) She is agitated by this distrust of the theatrical process, by the metamorphosis of the mob into an audience, and fails to envisage that the multitude could be trusted to be one part of the mutually consenting dyad upon which the mechanism of translation rests.

It is in EBB's correspondence with Browning that we see the culmination of this mode of translation in their shared intimacy with Shakespeare and in her expression of exactly what Shakespeare means to her. She writes to Browning of her isolated childhood in a letter of March 20, 1845:
 You seem to have drunken of the cup of life full, with the sun
 shining on it. I have lived only inwardly,--or with sorrow, for a
 strong emotion. Before this seclusion of my illness, I was secluded
 still--& there are few of the youngest women in the world who have
 not seen more, heard more, known more of society, than I, who am
 scarcely to be called young now. I grew up in the country .. had no
 social opportunities, .. had my heart in books & poetry, .. & my
 experience, in reveries.... It was a lonely life--growing green like
 the grass around it. Books & dreams were what I lived in--& domestic
 love only seemed to buzz gently around, like the bees about the
 grass. And so time passed, and passed--and afterwards, when my
 illness came & I seemed to stand at the edge of the world with all
 done, & no prospect (as appeared at one time) of ever passing the
 threshold of one room again,--why then, I turned to thinking with
 some bitterness ... that I had stood blind in this temple I was
 about to leave .. that I had seen no Human nature ... that my
 brothers & sisters of the earth were names to me, .. that I had
 beheld no great mountain or river--nothing in fact. I was as a man
 dying who had not read Shakespeare .. & it was too late! (BC,
 10:133). (30)

EBB sets herself up here as potentially Mariana-like in her description of a life entrapped and sinking ever deeper into seclusion, but her account invokes Daniel Karlin's "scepticism in the light of her Diary (1830-31), in which 'social opportunities' are not so much absent as spurned when available." (31) He is equally scathing about the letter's final analogy, in which EBB seeks to convey the full horror of her fear of an early death which would rob her of the potential of experiencing all that she had so far missed. Karlin comments, "How revealing that last analogy is of the very bookishness it laments! The perverse aptness of it is almost suspect" (p. 68). And yet it need not be: Shakespeare does not operate here as simply an analogy for life in a curiously gender-inverted model, but as life itself. In this case, the art-life split collapses as EBB invokes the experience of living in Shakespeare, not as a substitute for a more active life, but as an image of what that more active life might be. We get our sense of the potential of life through its proximity to Shakespeare, rather than vice versa.

Browning enters into EBB's letters through a Shakespeare quotation which she uses in explaining her enthusiasm for Paracelsus to Mitford:
 I ... wd. wish for more harmony & rather more clearness &
 compression--concentration--besides: but I do think & feel that the
 pulse of poetry is full & warm & strong in it, & that,--without
 being likely perhaps to be a popular poem,--it "bears a charmed
 life" [Macbeth, V.viii.12]. There is a palpable power! a height &
 depth of thought,--& sudden repressed gushings of tenderness which
 suggest to us a depth beyond in the affections. (August 10, 1836;
 BC, 3:186)

She later uses the same play to rebuke a by now determinedly skeptical Mitford for her severity to Browning: "Ah--you speak more severely of Mr. Browning, than I can say 'Amen' to. Amen wd. stick in my throat [Macbeth, II.ii.29-30]--even suppose it to rise so high" (October 1842; BC, 6:111). The quotations convey a self-deprecatory humor about the extent of EBB's enthusiasm for the other poet, a humor which continues in EBB's first letter to Browning, in which she asks "only for a sentence or two of general observation--and I do not ask even for that, so as to teaze you--but in the humble, low voice, which is so excellent a thing in women--particularly when they go a-begging!" (January 11, 1845; BC, 10:19). As Daniel Karlin notes, EBB adds "humble" to Lear's memory of the dead Cordelia's voice as "ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman" (King Lear, V.iii.273-275), and also interpolates the notion of begging, which, as Karlin also notes, is not something that Cordelia ever does (Karlin, p. 57). Possibly EBB hears an echo in the word "humble" of the slightly brutal use which Hamlet, ever to the forefront of her writing mind, makes of it to describe his perception of the proper state of his mother's blood at a period when she ought not to be falling in love at all, and least of all with his uncle: "You cannot call it love, for at your age / The hey-day in the blood is tame, it's humble, / And waits upon the judgment" (IV.iii.69). EBB's letter comes to seem both emotionally timorous and freighted with a sense of the potential enormity of the relationship about to be commenced here. She feints behind Shakespeare's language, using him as an emissary, as a more modern girl might use a best friend to sound out a potential romance.

EBB had used the King Lear quotation from V.iii twice before in letters to Mitford, once to express her own liking for a "soft, low voice" (August 12, 1843; BC, 7:278) and once to describe the state of her own voice, as "still too low for Lear" after a cold (December 16, 1844; BC, 9:282). Within a month, the quotation is transformed in her letter to Browning with a self-deprecating humor which not only flatters the younger poet, and tentatively acknowledges her own eagerness for the correspondence to last, but which also draws attention to the changes she has made to her source and thus engages Browning from the start in a written relationship which foregrounds Shakespeare but in which EBB is unafraid to take liberties with her source. She is confident in her literary status, but diffident emotionally. As she humbles herself to Browning, she plays in humbling Shakespeare to her own ends and presumably expects Browning to recognize her doing so.

If this seems overly ingenious or to demand too much of her correspondent, the challenge is ably met by Browning, who writes to Barrett on July 31, 1845 of his equally demanding expectations of her that, "In all I say to you, write to you, I know very well that I trust to your understanding me almost beyond the warrant of any human capacity--but as I began, so I shall end" (BC, 11:8). This letter itself carries a muted reference to Julius Caesar, V.iii. 24, in its last words, and again the context of the original, once recognized, carries an even greater freight of meaning. The words are Cassius': "This day I breathed first; time is come round, / And where I did begin, there shall I end." Browning adopts these words to suggest that in EBB he has found a form of new birth, and were she to leave him, she would effect a kind of death. Through Shakespeare, Browning picks up and adopts the metaphor of death which had previously been the fearful EBB's domain in their correspondence. So resonant are these lines of Browning that EBB repeats them in her next letter to Browning (July 31, 1845; BC, 11:10). Browning's first use of the lines picks up on his punning conclusion to his previous letter, in which he quotes IV.iii.218-219 of the same play when he writes that "If I venture to weary you again with all this, is there not the cause of causes, and did not the prophet write that 'there was a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the E.B.B. led on to the fortune' of your R.B.?" (July 25, 1845; BC, 11:3). Though both were entirely capable of using Shakespeare humorously, Browning's letter of July 31 to EBB insists here on the gravity of their situation; it is not a question of "fortune" but, as for Cassius, of life and death.

One of EBB and Browning's most intimate exchanges involves an absolutely silent quotation from Shakespeare, which neither needs to quote on the page because they are sufficiently sure of the reference being clear to the other without further prompting. Browning writes of a word of Juliet's which rises to his lips, and EBB assures him in her next letter that she "guessed at once" what his meaning was (January 27, February 3, 1845; BC, 10:44, 53). Under the guise of an exchange about their friendship, the two poets seem to be referring to Juliet's "It is an honour that I dream not of" (Romeo and Juliet, I.iii.66), words which are applied in the play to the young lovers' marriage. Shakespeare is not simply the language in which EBB and Browning speak to each other, the way in which they acknowledge their shared status and knowledge as poets; he is of the very essence of their relationship, and it can come as no surprise when EBB describes her response to Browning's proposal with a reference to Shakespeare: "How would any woman have felt.. who could feel at all .. hearing such words said (though 'in a dream' [Tempest, I.ii.487] indeed) by such a speaker?" (September 26, 1845; BC, 11:100).

In the courtship correspondence, we see the evolution of a number of relationships. Most notable, of course, is that between EBB and Browning, but we also see her trust in Shakespeare increase too, as she uses him as a medium, a bridge, through which she can reach Browning. She uses his words not only to translate herself to Browning but also perhaps to present her emotions to herself as well, to give them form. Yopie Prins writes of translation as a "contractual agreement [that] depends on an awareness of difference that does not reduce the other to identity, but allows for a mediation between 'my tongue' and 'the other's.'" (32) In this transaction, there is "a necessary displacement of meaning" (p. 436) which also occurs in EBB's use of Shakespeare. Prins is primarily concerned with the use by EBB and Browning in their courtship correspondence of Prometheus Bound, by means of which "they perceive their language as interchangeable, secondary, and not subject to ownership. Instead, each translates and is translated by the other" (p. 436). Precisely the same might be argued of their use of Shakespeare in their letters and of EBB's use of Shakespeare in her poetry.

In her preface to her translation of Prometheus Bound, EBB specifically distinguishes between the two modes of imitation and translation. Defending her decision to attempt a translation of an ancient writer against claims that an age ought more properly to aim to be "original," she writes that the act of translation does not mean that an age is in "servilely imitative" thrall to its predecessors. Rather, she goes on: "Surely [an age] may think its own thoughts and speak its own words, yet not turn away from those who have thought and spoken well." (33) Translation then is defined in opposition to imitation in EBB's early aesthetic and is an act which, crucially for this writer, is simultaneously a form of conveying information and an opportunity for self-expression: "It is the nature of the human mind to communicate its own character to whatever substance it conveys, whether it convey metaphysical impressions from itself to another mind, or literary compositions from one to another language" (Preface, p. 81).

Indeed, it comes to seem that translation is of the essence of the creative act for EBB, an act which necessarily involves an imaginative translation of something already in existence. She writes, for instance, of images of natural beauty that they do not demand slavish imitation: rather we should make them "subjects of contemplation, in order to abstract from them those ideas of beauty, afterwards embodied in our own productions; and, above all, in order to consider their and our Creator under every manifestation of His goodness and His power.... All beauties ... are multiplied reflections ... of one archetypal beauty" (Preface, p. 83). The works of the poet and artist thus translate divine power and splendor for the world. G. B. Smith wrote in 1874 of EBB's Prometheus Bound, that, "in this, as in her other translations, she desired it to be understood that her one great idea was to catch the spirit of the original" (p. 478). However, one might as easily apply that judgment to the rest of her work, while bearing in mind her comment in "The Book of the Poets" that "Art lives by nature, not by the bare mimetic life generally attributed to Art: she does not imitate, she expounds. Interpres naturae--is the poet-artist" (p. 153). We should remember too that EBB's most famous work is ostensibly a translation. Sonnets from the Portuguese are advisedly so called, and elaborately and transparently feign transmission of an original source which simultaneously gives voice to the contemporary woman poet. The maneuver exactly mirrors EBB's use of Shakespeare, as she uses his words to voice her emotions and gives to those words a powerful nineteenth-century resonance while insisting on the persistent presence of the playwright.


(1) "The Book of the Poets," in The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1973), 6:272; subsequently cited as CW.

(2) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1996), 1: 881-87; subsequently cited as AL.

(3) George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 396.

(4) Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 138.

(5) See, for instance, Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), pp. 95-113.

(6) The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. W. J. Craig (1905; Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980). All subsequent quotations from Shakespeare are from this edition.

(7) Sonnets from the Portuguese, CW, 3 227-248, Sonnet 2, ll. 10-14.

(8) Erik Gray, "Sonnet Kisses: Sidney to Barrett Browning," EIC 52 (2002): 137. Despite this apparently unsympathetic phrase, however, Gray also pays important attention to the "self-conscious physicality of her sonnet-kisses," p. 139.

(9) Richard Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1997), p. 7.

(10) "Poems. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning," North American Review 94 (1862): 353.

(11) "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," Dublin University Magazine 60 (1862): 158.

(12) Mary Russell Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life; or, Books, Places, and People, 3 vols. (London, 1852), 1:282; North American Review 94 (1862): 353.

(13) Tricia Lootens, Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1996), pp. 116-157.

(14) G.B. S[mith], "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," Cornhill Magazine 29 (1874): 486.

(15) Edmund Gosse, "The Sonnets from the Portuguese" (1894), in Critical Kit-Kats (London: Heinemann, 1913), p. 6.

(16) [W. H. Smith], British Quarterly Review 34 (1861): 353.

(17) E.C. Stedman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Boston, 1877), pp. 120, 132.

(18) See also Lagretta Tallent Lenker, Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare and Shaw (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001).

(19) Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (1807; Harmondsworth: Puffin, 2003), pp. 9-10.

(20) Marjorie Stone notes in Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995) that much of her critical reception renders her "one man's daughter and another man's wife" (p. 16).

(21) Anna Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines (London: Nister, n.d.), pp. 124, 126.

(22) Mary Cowden Clarke, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, 3 vols. (London, 1850-51), 1:278.

(23) Helen Faucit's account of her early years can be found in Faucit's On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters (Edinburgh, 1885).

(24) John Ruskin, "Of Queens' Gardens," in Sesame and Lilies (1865; London: Allen, 1911), [section] 56.

(25) The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, and Scott Lewis, 15 vols. to date (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1984-98), 1:54; c. January 1818.

(26) Notably, after her departure for Italy with Browning, EBB's sisters, Henrietta and Arabella, become the most frequent recipients of her Shakespeare references and quotations.

(27) The quotation is one which EBB used frequently in her letters, including a later letter to Boyd, on August [10?], 1837 (BC, 3:266) and a letter to Mary Russell Mitford on November 18, 1841 (BC, 5:172), in which she makes very varied uses of the quotation. To Mitford, for instance, she writes somewhat testily that "there are more things in Heaven & earth than are in other people's philosophy just now."

(28) EBB writes slightingly to Mitford of Joseph Hunter's A Disquisition on the Scene, Origin, Date, etc. of Shakespeare's Tempest (1839): "I do hate all those geographical statistical historical yea, & natural-historical illustrators of a great poet. I hate them & excommunicate them! I dont care a grain of sand on the shore whether Prospero's island was Bermuda or Lampedusa" (January 1-6, 1842; BC, 5:199).

(29) In Aurora Leigh, EBB writes that:
 I will write no plays;
 Because the drama, less sublime in this,
 Makes lower appeals, depends more menially,
 Adopts the standard of the public taste
 To chalk its height on, wears a dog-chain round
 Its regal neck, and learns to carry and fetch
 The fashions of the day to please the day,
 Fawns close on pit and boxes, who clap hands
 Commending chiefly its docility
 And humour in stage-tricks,--or else indeed
 Gets hissed at, howled at, stamped at like a dog,
 Or worse, we'll say. (5:267-278).

(30) EBB used the same analogy in letters to Mary Russell Mitford on October 3-5, 1843 (BC, 7:350) and to Mary Minto on June 30-July 1,1846 (BC, 13:100). The analogy is less fully developed in these letters, however, where the comparison is rather between not reading Shakespeare and not traveling.

(31) Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 68.

(32) Yopie Prins, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and the Differance of Translation," VP 29 (1991): 436.

(33) "Preface to Prometheus Bound," CW, 6:82.
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Author:Marshall, Gail
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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