Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Failed Pastoral and the Environments of the Poor
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In her poetry about environmental issues, Elizabeth Barrett Browning rejected the romantic pastoral mode, but stopped short of the ecological view which, during the second half of the nineteenth century, informed much of the Victorian response to environmental decay. Barrett Browning’s first polemical poem about the horrors of child labor was written at the behest of Richard Henghist Horne, anonymous author a parliamentary report on children in factories and mines. “The Cry of the Children” (1843) protests effectively against conditions that killed innocent children, body, and soul. In contrast, Barrett Browning’s depiction of the London poor in her novel poem Aurora Leigh (1856) describes the squalor and moral degradation of the London poor without analysis of why these conditions exist. Even though a singular working-class character Marian Erle is treated sympathetically, Barrett Browning’s descriptions in Aurora Leigh of the poor en masse is negative and makes for difficult reading, as does a second polemical poem, “A Song for the Ragged Schools” (1854). The tension in Barrett Browning’s work is instructive: Her environmentalist poems suggest the difficulty of finding rhetorical balance between representing the fragmentation of community attendant on modernity and the contrary impulse to romanticize nature.
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