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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A-tremble and dimplement: Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the OED

Did you know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the fifth most quoted woman in the OED’s illustrative quotations? I was tipped off to this rather surprising fact a few days ago, and thought I’d take a look at where she pops up. Amazingly, she is currently quoted no fewer than 1,530 times, starting, alphabetically, with abandonment (‘the elasticity and abandonment of Shakspeare [sic]’) and ending with zodiac-figure (‘The zodiac-figures of the earth loom slow’). This last is one of the 133 words cited that are currently ‘first evidences’, that is, at present she provides the earliest record for their use, and may have deliberately created some of them.

So, if we provisionally accept that Elizabeth Barrett Browning created at least some of these 133 words, it raises the following question: why do people invent new words? Presumably because there doesn’t seem to be one that precisely encapsulates what they want to say. I suspect, though I haven’t checked, that this may happen more frequently to poets, because of their need to condense meaning into a short space. And for a poet such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her extraordinary intelligence, her formidable learning, and her overwhelming desire to transmit to the rest of the world the ideas that crammed her mind, the task of condensing those ideas into the constraining form of a poem must have been particularly challenging. Indeed to find a poem crammed with ideas, we need to look no further than Aurora Leigh, the long verse novel that Elizabeth Barrett Browning described as ‘the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered’.

Reading Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh was hugely popular in its day, going through thirteen editions in the first seventeen years. But by the time Virginia Woolf commented perceptively on the poem in The Common Reader, Second Series, she could truthfully say of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that ‘[n]obody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place’. That was in 1935. By the second half of the twentieth century, though, things had changed, and long-forgotten women writers were being unearthed and studied avidly in universities all round the world. Now Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had more or less slipped off the radar for a hundred or so years, suddenly became of renewed interest. And the poem everybody wanted to read and study was Aurora Leigh, because of the new, or rediscovered, relevance of its subject matter, dealing as it does with gender roles, the politics of social class, and the relations between art and life.

Adusk and aflame

Sadly, though, it is no easier to read for all that. Woolf, whose essay deals in part with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s use of language in the poem, described it as ‘[s]timulating and boring, ungainly and eloquent, monstrous and exquisite, all by turns, [so that] it overwhelms and bewilders’, a comment with which it is difficult not to agree. And I think a partial explanation for this can be found by looking at some of the words which are currently first found in this work.  There are numerous archaic-sounding adverbs and adjectives – just starting at the beginning of the alphabet we find adusk, aflame, a-mutter, a-pinch, aprick, a-shake, a-strain, a-throb, a-tremble, and a-watch. And though we appear to owe her deductible and re-emphasize, I very much doubt that many of us would have found our writing greatly diminished without dimplement, or goatly.

If we compare her with her near-contemporary Coleridge, however, many of the 638 words for which he is at present our earliest source have enriched the language so enormously that it is hard to imagine how anyone ever got on without actualize and its derivatives, ameliorated, attainability, bipolar, bisexual, boastfulness, contextual, deceptively, elevating, factual, and so on through the alphabet.

This comparison, I think, neatly encapsulates the reason why Coleridge, for all his sometimes confusing philosophical disquisitions, remains more accessible and readable than Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Coleridge is aiming for precision and clarity, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning is plunging into cod-neo-classicism, making her characters, as Woolf puts it, rant and reel

like any of those Elizabethan heroes whom Mrs. Browning had warned so imperiously out of her modern living-room. Blank verse has proved itself the most remorseless enemy of living speech.

Or, to put it another way, linguistic experimentation took Coleridge into the future, and consigned Elizabeth Barrett Browning firmly to the past. That doesn’t make her any less interesting, of course, just, perhaps, rather less attractive to read.

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