Friday, March 6, 2009

To the Noblest of Her Sex

On March 6, 1806, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett — better known today as the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning — was born.* As with many other well-known writers of the time period, she has a connection to Edgar A. Poe.

The easy connection is in Poe's famous poem "The Raven." In writing that poem, he chose to emulate the complex poetic format and rhyming scheme of Barrett's "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Both "The Raven" and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" use a poetic form called "trochaic octameter" — that is, lines are made up of eight metrical feet utilizing trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one). This is a very wide meter — it's so long, in fact, that Poe requested his publishers not print it in the typical two-column style magazines used in those days but to instead allow only a single column, so that the entire line could run across the page.

Poe noted one line of Barrett's in particular as a source of inspiration: "With a rushing stir, uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain" which sounds very similar to Poe's "And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain..."

But, enough with the poetry lesson. Let's talk about the correspondence between Barrett and Poe.

Poe's earliest known review of Barrett was published in the Janaury 4, 1845, issue of the Broadway Journal — shortly after he had sold "The Raven." He reviewed her book The Drama of Exile, and Other Poems. The review (which later had a part two) was, I think, rather on the neutral side (though other Poe scholars refer to it as "gushing" and "enthusiastic"), especially because he condemns her "continuous mystical strain of ill-fitting and exaggerated allegory." What he does offer, however, is praise of Barrett's technical ability at crafting poems. He also notes that her "sense of art is pure in itself" (any time Poe uses "pure," he's giving the equivalent of a 5-star rating). A copy of the review is sent to Barrett through an acquaintance (and fellow poet) named Richard Henry Horne on January 25, along with a copy of "The Raven." While awaiting a reply, Poe criticized another journal for its negative comments about Barrett, referring to her as "the queen of all female poets." Okay, now we're getting gushy.

Barrett, after some delay, writes to Horne on May 12 that "The Raven" has power, though it suggests its author is not sane. As she writes, "it does not appear to me the natural expression of a sane intellect in whatever mood." She praises Poe's rhythm (ironically?) and the repeated "nevermore." Overall, she says, "there is an uncommon force and effect in the poem."

Barrett, within moments of this letter, writes another to Horne, telling him not to share her words with Poe. She downplays her interest in "The Raven" and instead focuses on the review, making sure to sound grateful for his praise. She refers to him as "a wonder among critics."

The success of "The Raven" prompted Poe to publish a full collection of poems (something he hadn't done in 14 years!). The Raven and Other Poems included the dedication: "To the noblest of her sex — to the author of 'The Drama of Exile' — to Miss Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, of England, I dedicate this volume, with the most enthusiastic admiration and with the most sincere esteem."

The dedication was a bit odd. The two had not corresponded directly, only through Horne as an intermediary. She was a bit surprised. As she wrote to Robert Browning on November 28, 1845, acknowledging the dedication: "And think of Mr. Poe... He wrote a review of me... the two extremes of laudation & reprehension, folded in on one another—You would have thought that it had been written by a friend & foe, each stark mad with love & hate, & writing the alternate paragraphs."

Poe finally sent her a personal, autographed copy of his collected poems and tales (presumably a London-printed version) in February 1846. A month later, she wrote to a friend: "Mr. Poe sent me a volume containing his poems and tales collected, so now I must write and thank him for his dedication. What is to be said, I wonder, when a man calls you the 'noblest of your sex'? 'Sir, you are the most discerning of yours.'" The letter she writes to Poe, some time in April 1846, says: "It is too great a distinction, conferred by a hand of too liberal generosity. I wish for my own sake I were worthy of it." She also, quite famously, refers to the English response to "The Raven," saying it has "produced a sensation, a 'fit horror'... Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the 'Nevermore,' and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a 'bust of Pallas' never can bear to look at it in the twilight." She also notes her fascination with Poe's tale "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (one of my favorites too!). Poe was proud of her response and is reported to have read it aloud to guests at his Fordham cottage some time that summer.

* I will refer to her as "Barrett" throughout. At the time this correspondence take place, she was not yet married to Robert Browning.

1 comment:

Beverly said...

Thanks for visiting my blog because it showed me the way here.

I am a great admirer of Poe, and am going to be back to read more. (I'm at work right now, so I must get back to it.) The colors you have chosen for this are perfect, but I do have a bit of trouble reading against the dark background. I'll have more time to concentrate at home.