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Module Three

ompare and contrast the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are remarkably different in style and substance for two poets born only three years apart. Both were born to expectations of respectability and education, and came to maturity in the height of the social changes that mushrooming industrialisation was bringing to what was then the most powerful nation on earth.

As an Englishman, Tennyson had been given "first prize in the lottery of life" (as Cecil Rhodes would later put it). He began composing poetry while still at school, and went on to Cambridge. Early poems were met with indifference or disapproval, but he persevered into popularity and was eventually made Poet Laureate. It seems entirely appropriate that he should have been taken to the heart of the 'Establishment' in this way, as he was very much the Victorian gentleman; his verses by and large show him to have approved of the status quo, and although he did have some interest in reform of certain abuses, it seems that he believed reform ought to be wrought from the top down, by those 'great minds' whose natural authority he did not question.

Elizabeth Barrett had a childhood more privileged than Tennyson's in material terms, and like him, she was composing poetry as a child. Her education was remarkable for a woman of her era—largely self-taught, however, and she was not, of course, able to attend a university. Since she was female she could not enjoy the same freedom and privilege that her male counterparts took as their natural due; further, as an invalid, she had to endure both pain and the considerable constrictions imposed by her illness, which kept her away from the wider world for years. Fortunately for her, Elizabeth Barrett escaped the confinement imposed by her condition and her appalling father, and went to Italy with her husband Robert Browning. From such a distance, it was possible to get a different view of England than the view available from within. It is not surprising that Barrett Browning's attitudes are different from those expressed by Tennyson, although it is rather astonishing that a person so handicapped by circumstance should have been able to achieve such liberation. Her poems do not read as though they were written by a Victorian invalid.

It does seem that, although herself wealthy and of the privileged class, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was able to identify with the oppressed. Her poem "The Cry of the Children" is a very powerful argument in favour of the reformist position against child labour. Setting the misery of these human young against images of carefree nature, and describing with dreadful persuasiveness the horrors of their lot, the poet makes a very strong emotional argument against these wrongs.

Similarly, "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" gives a vivid picture of the feelings of a human being who is a female slave. The slave's despair, and brief joy, and anger, and resentment, are all presented so as to evoke the reader's sympathy for this woman, and to make it possible to understand and even feel for her when she feels driven to murder her own child. The poem also highlights the illogic of a system that claims to represent liberty and equality, yet allows slavery.

Both the above poems show the poet as someone who feels very strongly about certain wrongs perpetuated by society, wishes them to be changed, and puts considerable poetic skill into an attempt to influence others. Tennyson, by contrast, does not really do this. Where he deals with the world at large, it is usually in a more measured tone. In 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' there is a powerful obituary for the "noble six hundred", but no suggestion that there might be anything wrong with a system of honour that required them to ride uselessly to their deaths. Rather, there is approval. This poem is in any case obviously written from the point of view of someone far from the actual scene, praising the glory and nobility of their heroism from a distance, whereas Barrett Browning presents a plausible first-person cry from the heart of the runaway slave, or a view of the factory children that is palpably from someone close enough to be personally moved by their plight.

Such issues as the exploitation of children are not what interest Tennyson. From what I have read of his poetry I feel sure that such a subject would have struck him as rather sordid, and not of a nature to inspire him to poetry. He was interested in beauty, in things that might be expressed beautifully. He wrote a good deal of poetry which had as its setting the world of medieval/Arthurian romance, which was probably more pleasing to readers in an age where people took it as natural to read poetry for pleasure than it is now. 'The Lady of Shalott' is a beautiful and eloquent poem, full of vivid images—the verses which describe Sir Lancelot are particularly splendid—and evoking the atmosphere of a Burne-Jones painting. This poem is, apparently, generally taken as a metaphor for artistic withdrawal from the world—which these days seems a very odd thing for the artist to wish to do. If this kind of life was what Tennyson saw for the poet, it offers a vast contrast with the vigorous participation of Barrett Browning—even though she was for quite some time just as confined as the Lady of Shalott. The 'Morte d'Arthur' is another beautifully wrought description, setting a scene and telling a (rather vapid) story, but it does not seem to have anything much to say. As for 'Mariana', it is seven verses of intensely conveyed atmosphere, but how depressing! It looks as though Tennyson must have had a very melancholy turn of mind.

Nonetheless, Tennyson's poetry shows a remarkable ability to present vivid and lovely scenes to the reader, and sometimes, his gorgeous use of language provides such a beautiful picture that a poem is an absolute delight. My own favourites from this selection are the excerpts from 'The Daydream'. 'The Sleeping Beauty' gives a vision of the princess asleep, and the verses convey the motionless silence of the scene with their languid sentences, long vowel sounds and soft consonants. Then come the snappier, harder-edged phrases of 'The Revival', full of activity and noise. The whole scene is absolutely alive.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not think very highly of this kind of romanticism, believing that it was the duty of a poet to celebrate his or her own age, or at least, she says so very clearly in the 5th book of "Aurora Leigh". This poem also provides an interesting contrast with Tennyson's views on the place and education of women. Barrett Browning expresses a very modern ideal of woman's place in the world, pointing out that

"every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought,
As also in birth and death."

According to Aurora Leigh, a woman may have her own work to do, separate from a man's work, although women do not always recognise this for themselves. The heavily ironic passage from book 1 on the young Aurora's education shows her contempt for the notion that women are to be educated only so far as to fit them for their men. The poet herself took self-expression as her right, despite the conventions of her era. 'Aurora Leigh' has been described as "a passionate indictment of patriarchy that speaks the resentment of the Victorian woman poet through a language of bold female imagery" (Deirdre David). Whereas Tennyson, in 'Blame not thyself', presents a view of ideal woman that purports to mean equality but cannot help but convey the essential Victorian view that the ideal woman has 'sweetness and moral height' but not much brain. It may have seemed quite advanced to Tennyson's audience, but these days it comes across as patronising and terribly old-fashioned.

There is also a difference of approach by these two poets when they treat intensely personal subjects. Tennyson's "In Memoriam" is a huge opus composed over many years, which examines his own grief following the death of his dear friend Hallam. There is a discreet barrier between the poet's own raw feelings and the reader, however. There is no sense of immediacy, rather it is clear that the poet has pondered the questions which arise in his mind, and has distilled his thoughts into the poem. The overall effect is one of melancholy philosophising, rather than aching misery. By contrast, Elizabeth Barrett Browning conveys a real immediacy of passionate emotion in the "Sonnets from the Portuguese".

At the same time, the poems of "In Memoriam" are in many ways more simply beautiful than the "Sonnets from the Portuguese". Tennyson paints word-pictures of situations or images, such as:

"And then I know the mist is drawn
A lucid veil from coast to coast,
And in the dark church like a ghost
Thy tablet glimmers to the dawn."

In a verse of this kind, he is not explicit about feelings, but conveys an atmosphere, a twilight feeling, and a visual image very clearly. Moreover, the form is apparently simple, the syntax straightforward and readily understandable, and there is no awkwardness in the flow of the verse.

The language of Barrett Browning's sonnets is not so smooth and elegant. Her punctuation is rather eccentric, and conveys a jerkiness of thought that enhances the immediacy of the feelings being displayed, but makes the poems rather more difficult to read. There is very little in them of the kind of metaphorical imagery Tennyson uses, perhaps because here the emotions are not filtered by the poet's after-thoughts. It seems to me that Barrett Browning uses poetic forms to express the exact nature of her love because it was natural for her to express herself in such a way. Her artistry and technical ability serve to lay bare her feelings of confusion, self-doubt, wonder, and absolute love. Tennyson used his feelings as the base material from which to craft his poems, but for him it was the poetry itself that was the essential goal, not the self-expression. By making her personal feelings plain, Barrett Browning creates poetry with which her readers can make an emotional identification; Tennyson, who draws universal meaning from his personal grief, creates something which is perhaps lovelier in itself, but loses the power of the pure emotion to bring a response from his readers.


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