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  • Wed, 08 Jul 2015 10:55:56    Permalink

    Tempestuous Victorians: How the Romantic Resonances of the Brownings Fuel an Eternal Fascination

    His poetry is defiantly sordid, anguished, and repressed; beneath the lines linger a simmering sense of devilishness which is almost seductive in its intensity, reined in only by form and carefully-calculated conceit. Browning – renowned for his place in the literary fiction canon among the Victorians and his relationship with another icon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning – continues to be revered for his prowess in wit, character, dark humour and social commentary. But Browning’s own achievements have often paled to those of his mistress, muse, and wife – a poet who revolutionized Victorian literature while echoes of Romanticism brooded in her rhetoric.

    Together, both Brownings produced some truly memorable and definitive works; Browning’s perhaps alarmingly, potentially-biographical “My Last Duchess” and Barrett Browning’s empowering Aurora Leigh have made their way into the syllabi of virtually every academic institution featuring an English literature programme. But it is the mystery and allure of the poets themselves which entice curiosity, even more than a century and half later – perhaps overshadowing their very works as is often the case.

    Victorian Excess

    While many Victorian literary circles fully-embraced the “carpe diem” mantra – particularly the fin de siècle in later years – the Brownings were not especially hedonistic; many writings verged more on the philosophical nature of morality, society, and critiques of Victorian archetypes. Yet the writers continue to fill the image of the tormented artist, particularly Barrett Browning’s tragic and untimely death (which some even theorize to be at the hands of her husband) and her dependency on opium. Of course, the mere mention of this potent substance immediately conjures up the decadent and hallucinogenic imagery of Victorians cavorting or being transported into the throes of artistic inspiration, as it is commonly romanticized by so many in relation to writers both contemporary and past. But Barrett Browning’s fixation on the drug played a very small role on her creative output. Instead, it was used as a coping alternative for her ailing health, and while she spoke of it like a love affair, Barrett Browning’s words “so far, that life is necessary to writing, & that I should not be alive except by help of my morphine” clearly indicate to what extent she relied on the drug.

    The Brownings would relocate to Italy for the purpose of improving Barrett Browning’s health. Sadly, she died in 1961, her death having devastating effect on Browning. Browning’s poetry would continue to be received, however – not only because of its religious influences and allusions to Milton and Dante, but the power it would have to captivate the minds of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Certainly, the themes covered in much of both Brownings’ works would add to their mystique. And as with all “celebrity pairings”, critics and fans alike have delved into the many-layered verses to decipher not only the social and spiritual resonances but the relationship between the two visionaries as well.

    Defiant Spirit

    Like many poets of the period, the Brownings were highly attuned to the social condition of those around them. Barrett Browning in particular focused on American slavery in her poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and child abuse and labour in “The Cry of the Children”, urging strong criticisms by those who felt that, as a woman, she was stepping out of her depth. Her husband’s commentary through poems like “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Childe Roland” would examine the idea of art and poetry as prophecy, as well as its potential for psychological insight through exploring different settings and circumstances (both in literal and figurative form). In many ways, Browning and Barrett Browning alike exhibited a kind of otherworldlyness distinct from contemporaries, though almost a hybrid the mystical nature of works by Tennyson and the more critical, focused material of Matthew Arnold. As poets and prophets, the Brownings succeeded in that balance which tilts on the brink – and becomes fully submerged at times – with another plane of thought, while maintaining an astute eye on the social implications of change, especially regarding human rights, labour, industry, and politics.

    Ultimately it is the writings of the Brownings themselves which reveal most about their lives and perhaps confuse, enlighten, bewilder, and entice the reader even more – and perhaps we will never truly understand or disclose the underlying secrets of one of literature’s most powerful couples. But this is exactly what keeps us coming back – to wonder at the strange lives of these brilliant individuals, and be ever enthralled by the masterpieces they have left behind.

    This article is by courtesy of Helen Salter

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