Browning and the Victorian Era: a Poetic Soul


The speaking voice Elizabeth Barrett Browning imposes through her writing is not quite typical for the Victorian Period. As a matter of fact, poetic narratives somewhat disappear after 1835, such that the Victorians prioritizes the “Gothic” genre of novels and other narrative prose that were quite popular at the time. As a result, poetry was no longer the most popular narrative form. Furthermore, during the Victorian Era individuals were primarily focused on the “Gothic” genre, which corresponds with an almost romanticized obsession with darkness and death portrayed in literature. However, Elizabeth Browning (1806-1861) takes an alternate approach and maintains the issue of idealistic perspective of living life for what it is, as well as the idea of refraining from the fact that earthly life is temporary. In that respect, I find Browning’s work quite fascinating. When individuals are asked to identify something from the Victorian Era, there is a good chance those individuals’ response will not be something such as "coming to terms with our own mortality" and "appreciating the beauty of life." Instead, individuals will often mention novels such as Dracula from Bram Stoker, or even the internet meme of people not smiling in photographs from the Victorian Era (that is actually a real thing, look it up). Keeping that in mind, Elizabeth Browning’s poetry which alludes to themes such as the acceptance that life is not eternal and living life to its fullest, is what differentiates Browning from other writers during her somewhat short life time.


Something to contemplate is: whether being different from other writers is a good thing? Browning’s ability to differentiate from other writers is an important part of literary history. Browning writes, “A place to stand and love in for a day, with darkness and the death-hour rounding it”. Browning sympathizes with the speaker’s voice, considering that due to respiratory issues she has potentially faced death on a regular basis for the majority of her life. Browning developed respiratory issues as a child, such that the issue of experiencing poor health for many years is what influences her dichotomy from others writers during the Victorian Era. Although a significant inspiration for Browning’s writing draws from her own poor health and the willingness to live each day to the fullest, this reality is not the sole reason for Browning’s narrative content.


The social concept (although this is also a common motif in literature) of agency plays a significant role in the distinction between Browning’s work, and other writers during this time period. The issue of agency refers to freewill, such that the refusal to yield to social pressures (conformity) is what allows Elizabeth Browning to hold such large importance in the history of literature. During Browning’s life time the majority of other successful writers were obsessed with death and darkness, which establishes the foundation for horror novels and films a well. Browning’s agency plays a significant role because it also attributes to the issue of “living life to its fullest”. Elizabeth Browning distinguishes herself from other writers during the Victorian Period by writing about the beauty of life, which is often portrayed in the Romantic Period that came before her (think of the great William Wordsworth). Browning’s deliberate choice of refusing to yield to social pressures tells me that she achieves her goal of living life to the fullest. Browning proves that agency also contributes to genuine success, considering that her intelligence and narrative work remains a subject of discussion 158 years after her death at the age of fifty-five. During her life time, poetry was an ancient form that almost disappeared from the literary world. However, writers such as Elizabeth Browning establish proof that poetry will always remain significant within the world of writing.

(c) The Modernist Son, 2020

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