Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Kicking off my contribution to the 2011 Victorian Literature challenge is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguse, a collection of sonnets she wrote for her husband, Robert Browning. Unlike Swinburne, who I'll be reviewing next, I was quite familiar with Barrett Browning before reading this collection. The professor of the Victorian Literature course I took in college was a big fan of the Brownings, and we spent several weeks studying their poetry. Much of it was taken up by Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth's eternity-long, semi-autobiographical rise to a nationally-recognized poet (she was apparently short-listed to become Poet Laureate, but Tennyson got it instead), but we also read a number of her shorter works, including one or two of the Sonnets.

I admittedly have something of a love/hate relationship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. On the one hand, she's an obviously gifted poet and many of her works are quite enjoyable. On the other, I hated Aurora Leigh with a passion, which is why I'll not be re-reading it for this challenge. My primary objections to it were twofold:

  1. I hate reading works involving Mary Sue (or Larry Stu) characters. If you want to write about yourself, fine, but don't pretend that you're perfect while doing it. (Fake flaws, like being too good are doubly annoying.)
  2. That my professor presented it as a feminist work when Barrett Browning spent a good bit of the narrative elevating herself and her writing at the expense of other women. It's one thing to write that women writers can be great because of how awesome your writing is; it's quite another to say that you're a uniquely awesome woman writer while not-so-subtly trashing on other female writers as well as other women of your social class in general. See also: Mary Wollstonecraft.
I also have little patience for lengthy poems, epic or not, in general.

I nevertheless decided to read all of the Sonnets from the Portuguese since they were said to be a huge departure from her other works. That assessment is quite true. In most of her poetry, Barrett Browning radiates confidence (often to the point of being abrasive and arrogant), both in terms of her own poetic ability as well as the subject matter upon which she was writing. Like many female poets of the Victorian Period, a lot of her early works centered on addressing social evils, namely slavery and the working conditions of the poor. While Aurora Leigh was more autobiographical, it nevertheless featured a lot of (heavy-handed) social commentary.

In light of that, the introspective, conversational, and personal tone of Sonnets from the Portuguese is quite jarring to those familiar with Barrett Browning's other works, especially those of us who found them overconfident and irritatingly superior. Barrett Browning lays her insecurities about herself and her relationship out for all the world to see in the Sonnets, and I found the display almost uncomfortable, as though I was reading her personal diary. The poems were nevertheless very enjoyable, and I'm glad I read them. I feel that my view of Barrett Browning as a poet and a person is much more complete. I also think a lot of people who aren't really into poetry would like it, as it's fairly short and the language is easy to understand and not overly difficult to parse or dense, as is often the case with poetry.

I've decided to not use the stars rating system on poetry, as I feel the act of reading poetry too subjective to evaluate the poetic works themselves fairly.

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