I admire Elizabeth Barrett Browning immensely, but I’m tempted sometimes to classify her among the undead. This article by Charles LaPorte in SEL confirms a long-held suspicion of mine: that for all her piety and pretty ringlets, her role was to digest weaker poets to prolong her wan life.
True, nearly everyone copied from Alexander Smith, Whitman (an admirer) being the most prominent. It was hard not too, with sales numbers like those. But EBB did it with panache. She lifted whole cloth his plot structure (a would-be poet composing an epic, achieving fame for it at last, while tangled in difficult affections), style (episodic, and jammed with metaphors), and subject position, and did all this after having been jealous of his fame. In letters to friends she was astonished at how many copies his book A Life-Drama was selling, asking essentially, “why is everyone freaking out about this poem?” Soon enough, she stopped wondering and jumped on the bandwagon.
The most shameful thing about this? People, even most scholars, have forgotten the link. At the annual MLA conference, I heard a panel speaker claim that “Aurora Leigh was the first Victorian peom to show contemporary sexuality and recovery therefrom.” But that’s not so; Smith’s protagonist Walter is the first, and the newspapers were full of debate about the nature of his crime; artists made illustrations of the scene for publication. It was everywhere. Then, the same speaker claimed that it was the first to show working-class figures and upper class-figures together in the same poem. Smith beat her there too.
That would be fine; others wrote derivative epics following Smith’s success. Remember though that EBB is wealthy, connected, and famous already while Smith was working-class and shamed by scandal. She came down up from her villa in Italy, wrapped in the scarlet cloak she could apply afford, and fed on the life’s work of a manual laborer to her own engorgement.
Still, she’s nowhere near as good. I love Aurora Leigh, but it’s tarnished goods next to the shining originality of A Life-Drama. I’m with this early reviewer, who wrote “Smith has composed the best epic of our age…next to [his work] Aurora Leigh is a nightmare medley.”