Through a detailed analysis of the writings of Victorian era female poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, this essay exposes the underlying themes of feminism in the author's works. The essay makes specific reference to two of Barrett Browning's most noteworthy poems, "Aurora Leigh", a directly biographical piece, and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", not officially an autobiographical piece. The essay reveals the theme of feminism through an examination of key areas of Barrett Browning, including: the inner conflict caused by the struggle to choose between female identity and accomplished author, the comparisons made between your oppressive practice of slavery and the poor treatment of Victorian women, and the importance of female autonomy prevalent in the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Many of these aspects come together together in the essay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is successfully able to shed light on the oppressive treatment of women surviving in the Victorian period.
Through her writings that often surround cruel female oppression, Victorian era poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning expresses feminist views in her works. Though often done subtly and indirectly, Barrett Browning uses her poems as a medium expressing her aversion towards Victorian era female oppression that manifested itself in areas such as societal expectations and lack of independence. Despite the fact that few pieces by Barrett Browning are said to be truly biographical, you can suggest that numerous other poems by Barrett Browning depict her life as a woman living the Victorian period, as well as the lives of women generally surviving in the Victorian period. Through the analysis of two of Barrett Browning's works in particular, "Aurora Leigh" and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", you can clearly see areas of Barrett Browning's own life being expressed in her writing. Aspects of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's life that are most visibly expressed in her writing include her inner turmoil between wanting to be a poet, and yet also attempting to maintain her femininity. Also noticeable is her condemning view of slavery, and how she likens the practice of slavery to the then treatment of women. And lastly obvious is her belief in the importance of women gaining independence from men. Through an in depth analysis of Barrett Browning's work with a particular give attention to "Aurora Leigh" and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", one can observe how the works reflect Barrett Browning's own lifetime experience and opinions regarding female rights. The works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning depict her aversion into the misogynistic Victorian era society.
Numerous works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning reflect the inner conflict that existed in her life. This inner turmoil is manufactured very apparent in "Aurora Leigh". Barrett Browning often depicts this conflict between attempting to become a poet and yet also attempting to possess femininity by way of a use of symbolism. As the scholar Dorothy Mermin observes, "A female who tried to be always a poet in this particular structure would appear to be taking the part of a guy" (Mermin, 715). In saying this, Shires asserts the notion that Barrett Browning, and by transference Aurora, is torn between wanting to be a poet but still wanting to fulfill her role as the archetypical Victorian woman. The conflict between a woman wanting to assert herself in virtually any male-dominated field while still maintaining a feminine identity would have been felt by many Victorian women, not only Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a poet. Barrett Browning uses figurative imagery to help convey this inner turmoil within both "Aurora Leigh" and also "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point. In the first book of "Aurora Leigh", Barrett Browning writes to be delivered to England to have at her aunt's house, where she strives to lead the life span of a proper lady that her aunt avidly advocates. However, when she describes the approach to life of her aunt, she describes it as being "caged": "She had lived\ a sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage\ I, alas, \ a wild bird scarcely fledged, was taken to her cage" (p. 13). Cages, used to entrap animals, become a universal symbol for oppression, entrapment, and control. In this way Barrett Browning shows that the life that was regarded as being most fit for the Victorian era women was something she viewed as being oppressive and constricting. Furthermore, by using the word "cage", Barrett Browning means that the lives the ladies led were no much better than an animal's life. Through creating this image, Barrett Browning is making a statement about her rejection to conform and become, essentially, a domesticated pet. The narrator's rejection of her aunt's lifestyle does not necessarily convey Barrett Browning's internal turmoil to the reader, but it does show her strong opinions from the expectations of Victorian women. As Barrett Browning's description of her upbringing with her aunt continues in book two of the poem, her inner conflict is again described through her use of symbolism. As the narrator celebrates her twentieth birthday, she makes the ultimate statement about her conflict between her identity as an artist and her femininity. She claims that she will not feel complete as either an artist or a female, though the resources on her behalf to achieve either one or the other are available to her. "Woman and artist-either incomplete, both credulous of completion. There I held the whole creation in my own little cup" (p. 38). Clearly, Aurora feels she actually is not capable of becoming both a writer and a real woman in her Victorian society, and so she feels she is forced to choose one or the other. By writing that she "held the complete creation" in her teacup, a personal item, Barrett Browning means that the non-public decision was, literally, in her own hands. In this way, the teacup itself is symbolic of Aurora's, and so Barrett Browning's, inner conflict and moreover expresses just how ultimately personal the decision between artist and woman is. So that as Zonana states, in the poem Aurora undergoes a "transformation into a poet who reconciles being truly a woman with being an artist" (Zonana, 242). Through these examples, it becomes visible to the reader that the utilization of figurative imagery in "Aurora Leigh" plays an important role in depicting the inner struggle within both Aurora Leigh and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in relation to personal identity.
The theme of inner conflict is also obvious in her poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point". Just as in "Aurora Leigh", the conflicts within the text can be related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's own life and internal struggle. There are numerous parallels that can be drawn from the "runaway slave" within the text, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This provides reason to believe that the poem may purposely, yet indirectly, reflect some of the happenings that Barrett Browning experienced as a Victorian woman. This poem tells the storyline of any black female slave, a dichotomy to the proper white female discussed in "Aurora Leigh", however "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" as well depicts Barrett Browning's have a problem with her identity as an author so that a female. In stanza eighteen of "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", the narrator observes the baby she bore her master. She cannot help but see her master when looking at her infant child's white face as opposed to her own: "My own, own child! I possibly could not bear\ to try looking in his face, it was so white\. For the kid wanted his liberty--\ Ha, ha! He wanted the master-right" (18, 1-7). The narrator continues: "I saw a look that made me mad\ The master's look, that used to fall\ on my soul like his lashor worse!\ And so, to save it from my curse, \ I twisted it round in my shawl" (21, 3-7). In a reply to "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", Tricia Lootens states: "Better, she suggests, to be whipped than to get one's soul (implicitly) stripped bare; easier to kill one's child than to curse him. Even in violence, soul trumps flesh: classic EBB" (Lootens, 497). Stated simply, Lootens asserts that in the work of Barrett Browning, the worth of your respective soul is greater than one's flesh. Flesh is valueless without soul. Knowing the worthiness that Barrett Browning places on the human spirit, these lines signify the author's turmoil. The narrator kills her own child - children being a flesh embodiment of a woman's femininity - to spare the child's spirit. In this way, the action of the runaway slave in Barrett Browning's writing represents the feelings of the author; the spirit, or the artistic desires of her spirit, is worth sacrificing the flesh, or her femininity, for. As the written text progresses to stanza twenty-six, where in fact the narrator describes the act of burying her child under nightfall:
My little body, kerchiefed fast, \ I bore it on through the forest. . . on:\ And when I felt it was tired at last, \ I scooped a hole beneath the moon. \
Through the forest-tops the angels far, \ Using a white sharp finger from
every star, \ Did point and mock at what was done. (26, 1-7)
This passage exposes a lot more than just the notion that society will chastise the narrator for killing her own child, hence her burying under the cover of nightfall, but further that even the angels above using their "white sharp" fingers will blame or "point and mock" her for her act. Equally as the angels in heaven harshly judge the narrator for killing her child, the Victorian society would judge Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or any Victorian woman, who shirked her stereotypical social responsibility as a woman.
Another theme used by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to expose the ill treatment of Victorian era women is slavery. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was notoriously opposed to the slavery that existed during the Victorian period, and this is reflected in several of her works. Perhaps one of the factors that inspired this resentment on the practice of slavery was a feeling of understanding from Barrett Browning that developed from her experience with the oppression of Victorian women; the plight of slaves and women would have been felt similarly in the era. This may provide an explanation to Barrett Browning's concentrate on slavery - she was able to sympathize. Within "Aurora Leigh" there are links made between the practice of slavery and female oppression. Dalley describes "Aurora Leigh" to be written with the purpose of denying Victorian era gender roles: "EBB obviously conceived of Aurora Leigh as challenging to the "conventional tradition[s]" governing women's behavior because it openly discusses the plight of women and calls for changes to existing laws governing marriage and property, and attitudes governing women's work for the money" (Dalley, 526). Within "Aurora Leigh", the idea of slavery and its similarity to the oppression of women becomes most evident in book two. As Aurora describes to her cousin Romney why she denies the idea of marriage, the connection between slavery and female oppression becomes lucid: "Am I proved too weak\ to stand alone, yet strong enough to bear\ such leaners on my shoulder? Poor to believe, \ yet rich enough to sympathise with thought?\ Incompetent to sing as blackbirds can?" (p. 48). Within this passage, Aurora appears to have some of the inferiorities that the oppressed blacks were thought to posses - mental inferiority and weakness. By subtly causeing this to be correlation, Barrett Browning likens the oppressed woman with an oppressed slave. She suggests that a wife was to a husband as a slave was to a master. Both the woman and the slave required the supposed superior man to pay for his or her inherent shortcomings. This passage is important for the reason that it depicts Barrett Browning's opinions towards slavery while also addressing her judgment of sexism, while effectively correlating the two. Later in the poem, again to Romney, Aurora states:
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, \ Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir, \ To put up when you're weary-or a stool\To tumble over and vex you. . 'curse that stool!'\ If not at best, a cushion where you lean (p. 206).
Aurora's statement directly draws an evaluation between being a Victorian era woman and being a slave. Through Aurora, Barrett Browning shows that a man will not require a wife as an equal companion in life, but instead to do something as an aid to him in his life, while the wife gains little from the marriage. This thankless job of assistance is also that which was expected of slaves. Both act as a mere tool to facilitate a man's life. On this passage, Aurora recognizes that in her patriarchal society, women were little more than tools to convenience their husband. These words spoken by Elizabeth Barrett Browning show that girls were with the capacity of realizing that they were being wronged and taken advantage of, which meant that they were much less mentally incapable as they were portrayed and thought to be. And moreover, they liken the procedure that the Victorian era women faced to the unethical treatment of slaves.
Through the fact that "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" centres on a female slave, there are numerous areas that display Barrett Browning's thoughts and opinions on the practice. However, in certain instances, Barrett Browning glorifies the choices created by the narrator which demonstrates her hatred for slavery, and further demonstrates that she really wants to escape the "slavery" of her gender. In the final stanzas of the poem, the narrator describes that the men are hunting her, knowing they will soon capture her, she literally laughs at the idea of her own demise: "My face is black, but it glares with a scorn\ that they dare not meet by day. \ Ha!-in their stead, their hunter sons!\ Ha, ha! These are on me-they hunt in a ring!\ Keep off! I brave you all at one time" (29-30, 6-3). In these lines, Barrett Browning conveys the absolute fearlessness and strength of the narrator. The tone of the passage, through its liberal use of punctuation and literal use of laughter, becomes excited and maniacal, and in a way seems to glorify the narrator and her defiance. Perhaps Barrett Browning created this effect of glorification of the narrator because she, as a female, would want to see the narrator courageously defy and overcome her oppressors. By laughing in the face of her oppressors hunting her, the narrator can take control of the situation and remove any satisfaction that her killers may get from her death. After having killed her child, and today letting herself die, she will be reunited with her child in a location where racial or gender-based oppression will not exist. Therefore the idea that by glorifying the narrator and her final actions in the closing of the poem, Barrett Browning shows that the narrator, wronged as she may have been by the men, was not only in a position to overcome, but furthermore triumph over her life's obstacles. This furthers the idea that Barrett Browning wishes to start to see the oppressed overcome their oppressors. Again, in the last stanza of the poem, Barrett Browning depicts the narrator as bravely awaiting her death, "I am floated along, as if I should die\ of liberty's exquisite pain. \ In the name of the white child looking forward to me\ in the death-dark where we might kiss and agree" (36, 3-6). On paper these lines in such a way, Barrett Browning creates a seeming sense of duty in the narrator, suggesting that to guard one's position or gender should be honourable. By like the narrator's jovial mood towards her demise, Barrett Browning makes the statement that the oppressed woman could take actions into her own hands, and by her dissatisfying reaction, rob her oppressors of any satisfaction. In this way, Barrett Browning glorifies the bold action of the narrator to be able to glorify the action of opposing her oppressors. Through this poem, Barrett Browning not only demonstrates her opposition to slavery, she also demonstrates its relation to the treatment of women, suggesting that fighting against either is an honourable act.
Finally, the theme of women's autonomy is prevalent in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's works. Women's independence is a central theme in "Aurora Leigh" and in fact, acts as a driving force in not only the actions of Aurora, however in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's own life. The desire to have female autonomy is noticeable in "Aurora Leigh" when Aurora marks herself as a writer by crowning herself with ivy. As Aurora crowns herself, she discusses the necessity to prove herself worthy: "The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned\ till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone;\ and so beside me it must be unless I prove\ unworthy of the grand adversity, \ and certainly I'd not fail a great deal. " (p. 38). Although there is not explicit mention of the particular "grand adversity" is, it is very likely the mere idea that Aurora, and of course Barrett Browning herself, were females in a misogynistic period. As previously mentioned, women in the Victorian era would be little more than the chattels of their husbands. To get a Victorian woman to become prominent poet, she would need to get away from the constraints located on her by the misogynistic society. It really is evident that both Aurora and Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt that to be able to attain their desires, they had to overcome the domineering masculine influence in their lives. This theme of female independence is visible in "Aurora Leigh" as Aurora explains to her cousin, Romney, why she cannot marry him.
You misconceive the question such as a man, \ who sees a woman
as the complement\ of his sex merely. You forget too much\ that
every creature, female as the male, \ stands single in responsible
act and thought (p. 51).
In writing this passage, Barrett Browning states that ladies, just as much as men, have individual thought and actions, regardless of the opposing view of Victorian men such as Romney who believe women are simply extensions of the husbands. Barrett Browning shows that if women are not granted even the standard of liberties off their patriarchal society, then they will never achieve independence unless they boldly act out against their Victorian gender constraints.
While the theme of female independence is slightly less conspicuous in "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", it is nevertheless alluded to in several instances. The mere idea that the poem centres on a female slave who yearns for freedom from her master instils in the piece an intrinsic theme of the necessity for female sovereignty. In lots of lines of the poem, the narrator discusses the oppression of the black slaves and especially black, female flaves, and through this description links to the oppression of Victorian period women can be drawn, as both are treated as chattels of their "master". Despite the fact that the narrator is discussing black slaves in the following passage, parallels can be drawn to oppressed females: "But we who are dark, \ we could dark! Ah, God, we've no stars!\ About our souls in care and cark\ our blackness shuts like prison bars. " (6, 1-4). With this excerpt, the narrator explains that due to their "blackness", or their skin colour, they can be automatically thought to be being lesser than their white masters. Naturally, not only did the black slaves haven't any control over their skin colour, but furthermore it is irrelevant with their mental and physical functions as a human. Equally the slaves were judged as being inferior because of their race, women were also assumed to be finally inferior to men predicated on their gender, an inherent and irrelevant feature with their identity. The femininity of women was falsely equated to, by men, frivolous unintelligence. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have been familiar with this entrapment that she wrote about, not only from experiencing life as a Victorian woman, but also due to her chronic illness that often limited her actions. The idea of female independence becomes visible again as the poem nears the end: "I am not mad: I am black. \ I see you staring in my face-\I know you, staring, shrinking back, \ Ye are born of the Washington-race, \ which is the free America:" (32, 1-5). By mentioning George Washington and "the free America", Barrett Browning draws explicit focus on the idea that America is a country founded on freedom, and it becomes emphasized just how horribly the slaves, and in a similar way women, were treated in the gloriously "free" country, and just how un-"free" their lives really were. In this particular passage, Barrett Browning insinuates that no nation can ever be free until all of its people are free. Within "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point", as the slaves were oppressed by their masters in the "free" country of America, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was oppressed by her civilized yet patriarchal, Victorian society.
Through indepth analysis of key themes in the poetic works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a specific concentrate on the autobiographical "Aurora Leig" and non-biographical "The runaway slave at Pilgrim's Point", it becomes lucid that Barrett Browning uses her writing to express her own activities and opinions to the unjust Victorian treatment of women. Firstly, these activities and opinions are displayed through Barrett Browning's use of interal struggle between your identity of poet and woman. Also, she expresses herself through her fierce opposition to slavery visible in both poems. Finally she achieves this purpose through the value of individual independence that is portrayed in her poems. When all of these components of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry are examined individually, it is clear that Barrett Browning uses her poetry as a medium expressing her experience and opinions for the ill treatment of Victorian era women.