Long before there was a writer named Carol Ann Duffy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prime candidate for Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Equally famous for her relationship with Robert Browning as for her work, Barrett Browning was taken seriously in a field that would remain dominated by men until the 20th century. She was mentioned on terms equal with contemporaries like her husband and William Wordsworth and was considered for Wordsworth's position as laureate before Tennyson was selected. The United Kingdom would wait another 160 years before a woman finally received the title.
In fairness, Elizabeth Browning was never in particularly good health as an adult and would die of an unidentified illness just eleven years after Tennyson's appointment. This makes her accomplishments as a poet all the more remarkable, as she dealt with physical complications, conflicts with her father, and personal tragedies to create a body of work that is still widely read today. Though propped to a degree by recent feminist critics who value the message of her poems more than the actual craft behind them, Browning's work is invigorated by a bright emotionalism, respect for the poetic conventions of her age, and a wide social awareness.
'Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems' is a Dover Publications overview of Barrett Browning's shorter work, choosing verse from the different turns of her life in 51 pages. Edited by Stanley Appelbaum as part of the Dover Thrift Editions series, Browning is featured in a thoughtful volume that maps romantic, spiritual, and social concerns beginning with 'The Seraphim and Other Poems,' her first mature collection published in 1838. We are given a variety of Browning's poems in chronological order, finishing with her 'Last Poems' collection of 1862.
Browning's poetry, combining periods of reflection with fast responses to events of the day, offers the best and worst of early Victorian writing. She was very much an artist of her time, creating intense verse that touches upon public and private life. 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' is probably her best-known verse in short form, a cycle of 44 sonnets reflecting her turbulent love affair with Robert. The cycle makes up a focal point for this book and shows Elizabeth at her truly best. These sonnets, besides their moving sincerity, offer constantly-changing imagery and a wealth of poetic resource.
Other poems, such as those dedicated to her spaniel Flush ('To Flush, My Dog'), the Greek god Pan ('A Musical Instrument'), and French author George Sand, show Browning's ability to widen the Victorian framework of strict meter and rhyme, much of it using iambic pentameter. Her respect for poets like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, and Coleridge (not to mention Dante and the Greeks) is also readily apparent.
Browning, like many of her generation, wrote verse in the heat of a moment. A deep feeling of social responsibility led her to write on current events with varying results. Topical poetry can be tied to emotional extremes of the given subject and make for bad poetry years later. While 'The Forced Recruit' is a powerful scene drawn from the Italians' fight against Austria in 1859, critics often shake their heads at 'The Cry of the Children' (on child labor) and 'A Curse for a Nation' (regarding slavery), which are too caught up in their political message to be overly concerned with art. The book includes these lesser-quality poems to capture the extent of Browning's social activism, though they are far from her better efforts.
At the height of her talents, Browning is a poet who still delights readers and cannot be ignored if someone has respect for good writing. Much of her poetry was well ahead of itself, some fifty years before the women's movement took any significant shape. This Dover collection is a low-priced introduction ($2.00 cover price) whose author continues to fascinate.
The volume is useful for newcomers to Browning's poetry or those looking for a quick brush-up. All of the poems offered are complete and Dover did not fall into the trap of excerpting from larger works that cannot be appreciated without their full text. Unfortunately, there are no introductions or footnotes for the poems; any references to social or personal situations not made clear in the verse will require a separate lookup. But plenty of poems, including 'Sonnets from the Portuguese,' are based in common feelings and require no lookup at all.