Only three portraits hung in the corner bedroom of a very selective Emily Dickinson: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Take a virtual tour here). This week we explore the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) on Dickinson, occasioned by Dickinson request in a letter to Samuel Bowles, traveling in Europe for his health, that
if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner.
Dickinson knew that Bowles would try to visit the grave of this famous writer because he took two books with him on his tour: the Bible and Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh. Many consider Barrett Browning Dickinson’s most important and beloved literary foremother.
We will explore what drew Dickinson to Barrett Browning, from a literary as well as a personal perspective. While Barrett Browning is best known these days for Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a series of love poems to her husband, we will focus on the epic novel-poem, Aurora Leigh, published in 1856 and read by Dickinson in the late 1850s-early 1860s. Condemned by some contemporary reviewers as too frank about taboo subjects like female desire, prostitution, and rape, it achieved critical acclaim and wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although Aurora Leigh fell out of the canon in the first half of the 20th century, feminist scholars recovered it and study it as the first, first person account of a woman poet’s coming of age, struggling against conservative Victorian social conventions, gender restrictions, and her own conflicting desires for love. In Literary Women, Ellen Moers called it
the epic poem of the literary woman herself.
As such, it spoke volumes to a young aspiring poet in rural Massachusetts.
“The Woman that Writes”
Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
This week has been one of prosperity to the union arms, though no great movements have occurred. No considerable action has taken place before Richmond. At no point has there been a rebel gain.
Verbal Foundlings, page 2
There are some words of doubtful parentage, words picked up in the street, or dropped mysteriously at some hospitable door. If they receive shelter and kind treatment, they sometimes develop into useful members of society, but too often, like other orphans, they are overworked in their youth and afterwards ignore or neglected. In such cases what must be our emotions when we learn that the mysterious stranger is of ancient and eminent parentage.
Civilization in Africa and in Dixie, page 2
But with all the advantages and benefits derived from the peculiar institution [of slavery], [human inhabitants of equatorial Africa] are still savages, and there is nothing beautiful or fascinating about them, not even when they smile. They are, however, valiant warriors, and excel in the manufacture of arms, particularly in the spear and the sword. Why, the weapons of war made by those savages are as much superior to those manufactured by the chivalry of the South, as those of Damascus or Chicapoo are superior to those produced by the savages. If those weapons [of the South], thousands of which have been taken from captured rebels, should be exhibited to the wild cannibals of Africa, they would exclaim, “What barbarians made these shocking looking knives and swords!”
The Woman That Writes, page 6
Grace Fenton was only twelve years of age, and although her quick scholarship had given her a place in the first class, yet nobody thought of her writing a theme for the occasion. As she blushingly went through [her composition], her fellow pupils whispered to each other—“Grace never wrote that;” “Her father helped her;” “Certainly, of course.” But there was one among the visitors who rose and said:—
“The written exercises are highly creditable to the ingenuity and skill of the writers. Some of them are proofs of patient research and great judgment in selection, but the brief and artless essay to which we last listened was given us not only by the writer but by the author.”
In these brief and sensible remarks was a single word that proved fated to Grace’s peace. “The author.”
Poetry, page 6
Three poems appeared in this week’s Republican; all included themes of death, country living. and faith.
Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862
Immediate Emancipation, page 2
The emancipation movement does not progress fast enough for many people. If a desire to see that institution banished from the land is abolitionism, then we are all abolitionists. On that point we are all united; yet on the question of immediate and general emancipation, there are wide differences of opinion.
The Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862
“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau
How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.
Harper’s Monthly, June 1862, page 123
There is a poem of Mrs. Browning’s in the “Last Poems,” lately published, which is the most pathetic and passionate expression of the woe of a mother who loses both her boys in the Italian war of liberation. [“Mother and Poet” p. 183] If you do not happen to like Mrs. Browning’s poems, as the Country Parson says he cannot read Carlyle, it is not necessary to read the stanzas I am going to quote. But don’t for a moment imagine that you have said a fine thing in saying so, or that you have shown yourself to be downright common-sensible. You may not like Shakespeare’s music, the odor of magnolias—but they are good.
“Her Unmentioned Mourner”
By the time of her death in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved wide international success as a prolific poet and outspoken liberal voice on issues like child labor reform and abolitionism. When Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked Dickinson, in his response to her first letter dated April 15, 1862, who and what she read, she responded “– For Poets – I have Keats – and Mr and Mrs Browning” (L261). Though scholars find echoes of Robert Browning’s poetry in Dickinson’s verse, Barrett Browning was the much larger and more significant influence for Dickinson in her formative years.
As Higginson observed in an 1854 letter to Robert Browning, her widely reviewed collection Poems [1844; expanded 1850, 1853, 1856] made
Mrs. Browning’s poems . . . household words in Massachusetts to every school boy & (yet more) every school girl.
A supporter of women’s rights, Higginson recognized the importance of Barrett Browning as a model for young women who aspired to independence and careers. In addition, Barrett Browning’s story was compelling and romantic. She showed early poetic prowess, but an illness and a riding injury made her an invalid and kept her frail throughout her life. After the poet Robert Browning read her poetry, they began a correspondence that blossomed into romance and a secret elopement against her father’s wishes.
It is important to note, however, that Higginson’s feminism was a minority position. By contrast, Josiah Gilbert Holland, another of Dickinson’s close friends and the literary editor and part owner of the Springfield Republican, was an antifeminist who opposed women’s rights to vote and own property. In 1858, he published an essay, “Women in Literature,” in which he expressed the fairly widespread idea, explicitly countered by Barrett Browning, that men have principles while women express fancies. He also dismissed Dickinson’s beloved Aurora Leigh, along with another passionate favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
Scholars argue that Dickinson was drawn to Barret Browning because of similarities in their social situations. The Englishwoman was from a gentrified, middle class family, with roots in the creole plantation culture of Jamaica, had a docile mother, who birthed twelve children, a strong-willed, tyrannical father, and a favorite brother. She came to her love and study of poetry early, was self-educated, and suffered illness and injury which kept her a recluse for many years. She even had a constant canine companion, Flush (a cocker spaniel whom Virginia Woolf famously wrote about), counterpart to Dickinson’s Carlo.
The resemblance stops there, though, for Barrett Browning eagerly published her work, courted popularity, and was outspoken on contemporary social issues. She had a whirlwind courtship with the dashing younger poet, Robert Browning, married him and moved to Italy, where her health improved and allowed her to have a child. She managed to combine literature and love, work and motherhood in a way that Dickinson could not or chose not to. Some scholars speculate that Barrett Browning lived the life Dickinson dreamed of, while Betsy Erkkila contends that we should pay attention to the differences between them, and that Dickinson was, in some sense, truer to her “better self” and a radical vision of women’s art and independence.
Still, Barrett Browning’s struggles as a woman and poet and her notion of the noble and sacred vocation of poetry spoke to Dickinson. She owned the 1859 edition of Aurora Leigh and first referred to it in her letters in 1861. In nine books of blank verse, this epic poem tells the story of Aurora Leigh, daughter of an English father and Italian mother, who is orphaned at twelve, raised by her “caged bird” English aunt, and courted by her cousin Romney Leigh, a social reformer who does not believe women can make art. Aurora rejects Romney’s offer and moves to London to pursue a career as a poet.
Their complex story has a subplot involving the destitute Marian Erle, one of Romney’s “projects,” who is trafficked by her abused mother and eventually sold into prostitution in Paris, raped, and driven partly mad. Aurora takes Marian to live with her in Italy, but eventually realizes she loves Romney, who goes blind and comes to acknowledge her poetic achievement. Aurora finally marries him, while Marian dedicates herself to raising her daughter. Along the way, Aurora discusses women’s desires, men’s dominance, and her struggles to make art. Barrett Browning called it
the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.
Sometime in mid-June, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Samuel Bowles, away in Europe, telling him how she missed him acutely and adding her special, perhaps ghoulish, request:
If you should like to hear the news, we did not die – here – We did not change. We have the Guests we did, except yourself – and the Roses hang on the same stems – as before you went. Vinnie trains the Honeysuckle – and the Robins steal the strings for Nests – quite, quite as they used to – I have the errand from my heart – I might forget to tell it. Would you please to come Home? The long life's years are scant, and fly away, the Bible says, like a told story – and sparing is a solemn thing, somehow, it seems to me – and I grope fast, with my fingers, for all out of my sight I own – to get it nearer -
Should anybody where you go, talk of Mrs. Browning, you must hear for us – and if you touch her Grave, put one hand on the Head for me – her unmentioned Mourner –(L266)
Barrett Browning died on June 30, 1861 in Florence, Italy, her adopted home, and is buried there. A year later, Dickinson still styled herself in mourning for someone especially important to her—so important that she bid Bowles to lay hands upon “the Head” of the grave for her, as if to make concrete (through another of her literary intimates) the deep connection she feels to a poet she has never met but who shaped her sense of what a woman could do.
This week’s post on the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Emily Dickinson invites reflection on how women writers are able to influence each other. It is remarkable that Dickinson knew where Barrett Browning’s grave was located in light of the fact that there were so many women writing at the time, and so few of whom received due notice or critical acclaim. Barrett Browning was exceptional not only for her writing but also for her fame in life and death.
I taught an undergraduate British literature course this Spring that explores what it means to be a canonical woman writer of the long 18th century and how that compares to women who are elsewhere on the continuum between canonical and unknown. For the first half of the term, we read writing by women who are varying shades of well-known, canonical, and at smaller risk of being forgotten, such as Aphra Behn, Mary Collier, and Mary Shelley, who is being celebrated around the globe for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein.
We dedicated the second half of the term to reading and writing about work by understudied or unknown women authors, like S. Robinson, Esther Barnes, and Maria Grace Saffery. In fact, it was a student, Danna D’Esopo, who discovered that Saffery wrote the last poem we studied in the course, entitled “Cheyt Sing” (1790) though the title page gives no author attribution. We approached these works differently from how we approach Frankenstein, for example, since there is little or no research published specifically on the author or the work to provide context. We read closely as an act of recovery: using front matter, title pages, advertisements, dedications, the text itself, marginalia, and any information about the book we could glean from digital images.
A poem we read together by Esther Barnes called “The Disengaged Fair” (1796) contains a call to gather a vocal tribe of women writers in support women’s independence. The poem begins as a response to a middle-aged widower who placed a single’s ad in a newspaper addressed “to the Disengaged Fair,” seeking a wife “who may wish to give Retirement and Ease the Preference to a single Life.” The gentleman threatens to treat applicants without sufficient virtue “with the Contempt they deserve.” In her poem, Barnes writes back to the gentleman “in Behalf of the Fair Disengag’d” and makes witty demands of her own on the habits and virtue of a prospective husband. Then, she writes to the women she is in solidarity with:
What, barter our liberty, to be a slave,
To a clown or a fop, a fool or a knave;
Consider, good ladies, we can do as we please,
We have no one to vex us, nor no one to teaze.
I think all that makes us poor ladies afraid,
Is that frightful sound, ah! There goes an old maid!
All I now wish is, that the body at large
Would make a petition, and lay down a charge,
That not one in future should ever us call
But Disengag’d Ladies, and that should be all.
And therefore I think we’ll all vow and declare,
That we will be call’d the Disengag’d Fair.
Ought we not to have some badge or some sign,
That we are all maidens, and maidens divine.
I wish that the ladies would now out of hand,
Send up their name, and we’d form a grand band,
And would all marshal forth for the good of the
This I think, that we ladies would stand by our
And trim all those husbands who their wives don’t
To find out our friends will surely be hard,
So we’ll rally our forces, and be on our guard.
And now our whole body declare with our pen,
That we will esteem all worthy good men. (ll. 12-13)
Here, the poet creates her own competing advertisement to the widower’s. As a counterpoint to marriage (a union of the widower and his “disengaged fair”), Barnes wants to create another kind of union: an army of disengaged women, a “grand band” for the cause of maidens, also a pun on a wedding ring. But like the widower, she needs applicants to “send up their name” to her, because it will be hard to “find out our friends.” The disengaged fair, whether they will be future friends in Barnes’s band, or brides, are unknown. They’re out there, but they require a printed advertisement to muster.
Despite its humor, I find the medium of Barnes’s call, through an advertisement in a newspaper mimicking the widower’s personal ad, trivializing. In addition, her inability to name the names of like-minded women writers who might join her suggests how isolated she was from other women writers and how anonymous they were at the time.
At least Dickinson was able to identify Barrett Browning as an author who expressed what it meant to be an independent woman writer and latch onto her for inspiration, even to the point of being able to locate her grave and send someone to “fangirl” there on her behalf. Barnes’s search for compatriot women she admired who were independent-minded when it came to marriage and writing was much harder: she can’t name them, much less know where they are buried. Shows how far women had come by the mid-nineteenth century.
Kirstyn Leuner is Assistant Professor of English at Santa Clara University, where she specializes in British literature of the long eighteenth-century, Digital Humanities (DH), women’s writing, and Romanticism. She is Director of The Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing and at work on a related interdisciplinary monograph. Both projects seek to recover and study Francis Stainforth's 19th-century private library that contained approximately 8,800 volumes of writing produced by women. She has published essays on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Rodolphe Töpffer’s earliest comic strips, markup languages, and book history. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Colorado Boulder and, following this, was Postdoctoral Fellow in the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College.
Visit her research website or on Twitter @KLeuner
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.
Atlantic Monthly, June 15, 1862
Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.
Springfield Republican, June 14, 1862
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 68-79.
Stone, Marjorie. “Lyric Tipplers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Wine of Cyprus,” Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor,” and the Transatlantic Anacreontic Tradition.” Victorian Poetry 54.2 Summer 2016): 123-154, quoted from The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23 volumes, eds. Philip Kelley et al. Winfield, KS: Wedgestone: 1984–2015, 20: 53.
For information on Barrett Browning, a summary of Aurora Leigh and selected books from the poem, see the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive
For a short account of the Brownings in Dickinson’s life, with a list of further references, see Curtis, Audrey. “Browning Robert (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861).” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 1: 129-33.
On Josiah Holland, see Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 326.