Denae Dyck and Marjorie Stone, “The ‘Sensation’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress (1860): Events, Politics, Reception”

Abstract

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress paradoxically addresses a political event that never took place: a meeting of European powers to discuss the “Italian question” planned for January of 1860. Nevertheless, the collection addresses several momentous historical developments, including the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, the intervention of Napoleon III of France in the Italian struggle, and the international conflict his intervention precipitated. Indeed, the book’s publication and the sensation it created in themselves constitute a plurality of events, since the collection appeared under differing titles in England and America and encountered differing responses in each country. Contrary to the still dominant critical view that the volume was almost universally denounced, its reception was shaped by diverse locations, shifting chronological contexts, and conflicting political affiliations. Close analysis of the reviews underscores the importance of these wider contexts, which influence what otherwise appear to be primarily literary or aesthetic judgements. At the same time, analysis of varying responses to not only “A Curse for a Nation” but also “Napoleon III in Italy” and other poems in the volume demonstrates a number of recurring points of contention. These include the collection’s title, the politics of interventions across national borders, English liberalism, the nature of democracy, cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, women writers in relation to politics, poetic form, and, most of all, EBB’s representation of Napoleon III—the issue that is front and centre in most of the 1860s reviews and that shaped, in turn, reactions to all the rest.

Engraving of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from _Works_ vol. 1

Engraving of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from _Works_ vol. 1

I.  Introduction

II. What’s in a Title? The “Congress” in Question and the Transatlantic Shift

III. Historical Contexts: Napoleon III and His Intervention “in Italy”

IV. “‘[A]ntichrist’” vs “Sublime Deliverer”:  Napoleon III and Anglo-Italian Politics
 
V. England, America, Both, or Neither: Controversies over “A Curse for a Nation”

VI. From Shriek to Song: Poetic Form and Other Works in Poems before Congress

VII. Epilogue: Poems before Congress after 1860

Abbreviations for Frequently Used Materials

FF   Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden 1850-1861, edited by Philip Kelley and Sandra Donaldson; associate editors Scott Lewis, Edward Hagan, Rita S. Patteson, Wedgestone P, 2009.

LEBB  The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Frederic G. Kenyon, Macmillan, 1897. 2 vols

LTA The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella, edited by Scott Lewis, Wedgestone P, 2002. 2 vols.

WEBB The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, general editor Sandra Donaldson; volume editors Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone, and Beverly Taylor, Pickering and Chatto, 2010, 5 vols.

I. Introduction 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress is a highly topical collection, but paradoxically one whose title alludes to a political event that never took place: a meeting of European powers to discuss the “Italian question” planned for January 1860. Nevertheless, the collection addresses momentous historical events: the second war for Italian liberation in 1859, the intervention of Napoleon III of France in the Italian struggle, and the international conflict his intervention precipitated. As EBB states in her “Preface” dated “ROME, February, 1860,” “These poems were written under the pressure of the events they indicate, after a residence in Italy of so many years, that the present triumph of great principles is heightened to the writer’s feelings by the disastrous issue of the last movement, witnessed from ‘Casa Guidi windows’ in 1849” (WEBB 4: 533).[1] In referencing her first major work on the “Italian question”—Casa Guidi Windows (1851), dealing with the wave of revolutionary Italian upheavals in 1848 – 49 and their “disastrous” outcome—she simultaneously set the larger context for her second volume on the prolonged historical struggle of the Risorgimento.[2] The “pressure of events” created by the second major “movement” of the Risorgimento, combined with the position that EBB as an English woman publicly took on an issue of immense importance in European politics, made Poems before Congress a controversial collection. Certainly there were many who did not see Risorgimento aspirations, or more particularly, Napoleon’s military intervention supposedly to promote them, as a “triumph of great principles.”

Given the conflicts at stake, the publication of Poems before Congress itself constitutes both a significant event in literary history and in the reception history of EBB’s poetry and a revealing incident in the history of the transatlantic mid-Victorian periodical press. Odo Russell, England’s diplomatic observer in Rome in 1860 and a friend of the Brownings, remarked to Robert Browning in mid-April 1860, “[I]t’s extraordinary the sensation your wife’s book has made. Every paper has something to say about it.” Indeed, the book’s publication and the sensation it created might be more precisely viewed as a plurality of events, since the collection appeared under differing titles in England and America and encountered differing responses in each country. In London, it was published by Chapman and Hall on 12 March 1860, with a title alluding to the European “Congress” that had not occurred. In New York, it was published by C. S. Francis & Co. under the title Napoleon III in Italy. And Other Poems in the first week of April.[3] These twinned transatlantic publication events were further complicated by the contrasting English and American receptions of the concluding and most controversial poem in the collection, “A Curse for a Nation.” Taking the form of a thundering malediction delivered in the mode of the Old Testament prophets, “A Curse for a Nation” had first appeared in December 1855 as the lead work in the 1856 issue of the Boston abolitionist annual The Liberty Bell .

Title page image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Curse for a Nation"

Figure 1: “A Curse for a Nation,” Liberty Bell, 1856 issue

Understandably, in this earlier context—interpreted as a poem directed at America “for” the “curse” of slavery—the poem elicited very different reactions than it did when it reappeared in Poems before Congress, with a “Preface” indicting England for its failure to intervene in the cause of liberating Italy.

The compounded historical and literary events associated with Poems before Congress invite the “interpretive depth” facilitated by the structure of BRANCH. As editor Dino Franco Felluga’s founding statement explains, the site seeks to capture how “historical information can branch outward in often surprising directions” from a linear “chain of events,” producing an “impacted history that explores the messy uncertainties and possibilities of any given historical moment.” Events or historical moments can also scale up or down in magnitude and duration. In Herbert Tucker’s words, “What are the optimal, or the permissible, proportions for an event? . . . . Event: what’s the long and short of it?” However, long or short, as Tucker observes, “events are where we find them, which is to say, what we make of them.” His reflections are especially pertinent to Poems before Congress. Contrary to the still dominant  view that the volume was almost universally denounced, this BRANCH entry shows how diverse locations, shifting chronological contexts, and conflicting political affiliations led readers to make very different things of EBB’s most controversial poetical collection and the events it engaged with and precipitated. While reviews of Poems before Congress are often cited with little or no attention to when and where they appeared, or under what circumstances, our analysis points to the vital importance of considering both their immediate and wider periodical contexts.

Leonid M. Arinshtein’s much cited 1969 study, although ground-breaking in several respects, exemplifies the common critical patterns in analyses of the reception of Poems before Congress / Napoleon III in Italy. First, he addresses only the British publication of the collection, not even mentioning its differing American title; secondly, he cites only reviews appearing in England, thus focusing predominantly on the British reaction to “A Curse for a Nation”; and thirdly and most influentially, he cites certain British reviews to the exclusion of others in presenting the volume’s reception as overwhelmingly negative. “No sooner had the book gone on sale . . . than the British Press launched a savage campaign against [its author],” Arinshtein observes. “Hardly a poet had suffered such an onslaught since Byron and Shelley” (38). Similarly strong language appears in 1980s treatments of Poems before Congress by Marjorie Stone (1986) and Dorothy Mermin (1989), who, like Arinshtein, respectively highlight the “violent uproar” (Stone 169) and the “storm of abuse” (Mermin 234) excited by the collection, and especially by “A Curse for a Nation.” In 2005, Katherine Montwieler continues in this tradition by describing a “storm of criticism so extreme in its vitriol that it exceeded even the prescient author’s intuition” (291). Typically, such studies emphasize the most negative of a select group of British reviews in influential journals such as Blackwood’s Magazine, the Saturday Review, and the Athenaeum. Even Alison Chapman’s exceptionally wide-ranging and nuanced analysis of EBB’s British, Italian, and American print and sociability networks in Networking the Nation (2015) creates the impression that Poems before Congress was generally “denounced” (xxxi), despite later demonstrating that its author found “a more sympathetic as well as more lucrative audience” in America for the pro-Risorgimento poems she went on to publish in the New York Independent (231). Although EBB herself alluded to the “very angry reception” of her book in England in a letter to the Theodore Tilton,[4] editor of the Independent, a more multi-faceted picture of the volume’s reception emerges when a wider range of reviews is taken into account, in England as well as America. This diversity of critical responses is more fully registered in Sandra Donaldson’s 1993 annotated bibliography on the reception history of EBB’s poetry, her article of the same year on Poems before Congress, and Elizabeth Woodworth’s PhD dissertation (2007) on the contexts and reception of Poems before Congress—a key resource for the detailed annotation of this work  in WEBB.[5]

Newly published letters by EBB covering the period of Poems before Congress in Florentine Friends (FF) now further illumine both the diversity in reactions to Poems before Congress and the dialectical, dynamic nature of a collection in which EBB’s own opinions were changing under what she aptly termed the “pressure” of unfolding events. Drawing on these resources and others, this BRANCH entry examines the political contexts that shaped the collection. Rather than following the critical practice of according the lion’s share of attention to “A Curse for a Nation,”we consider this much discussed poem along with others in the collection in relation to a full spectrum of British and American reviews, analysing the chief points of contention that emerge. These include the collection’s title, the various players in the struggle for Italian liberation and unification, politics of interventions across national borders, English liberalism, the nature of democracy, cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, women writers in relation to politics, poetic form, and, most of all, EBB’s representation of Napoleon III: the issue that is front and centre in most of the 1860s reviews and that shaped, in turn, reactions to all the rest.

II.        What’s in a Title? The “Congress” in Question and the Transatlantic Shift

The title Poems before Congress simultaneously announces the political emphases of the volume’s contents and complicates the precise relationship between this poetry and the “Congress” in question, as well as the meanings of “Congress” itself. As Kelley and Donaldson observe, the Congress of European nations was proposed by Napoleon III, agreed to in November 1859, and scheduled to take place on 5 January 1860. Plans for it were aborted, however, after Napoleon III published a pamphlet on Le Pape et le Congrès on 22 December that infuriated both the Vatican and Austria (FF 260, n.9).[6] EBB first mentions the Congress in a letter to her sister Arabella at the end of March 1859, not hoping “for much real good out of it” in place of “battles” against the Austrians; she expresses similar views on 31 October, discussing the adverse effects of England’s potential absence from it but also saying that she would not object to this if it meant that “a Congress could be prevented altogether” (LTA 2: 400, 403).

Expectations and negotiations concerning the planned Congress mounted as the date assigned for it approached. On 7 December 1859, after Giuseppe Garibaldi—the brilliant military leader of the Italian resistance—was persuaded (or pressured) into “standing aside” on a planned invasion of the papal states “to make room for the congress,” EBB remarked to Arabella, “[w]e are all holding our breath . . . before Congress” (LTA 2: 435). In mid-December, she remarked to Isa that “the congress will do much in the way of confirmation,for north Italy, but for the south we may have to wait” (FF 262). By 25-26 December, however, after the publication of Le Pape et le Congrès by Louis Napoleon, she was observing that “it is the opinion of well-informed politicians that the pope wont lose all at a congress-stroke” (LTA 2: 438). The pope’s fears rose as much from England’s altered position as the pamphlet: on 30 December, EBB remarked to Isa that “the English diplomats” in Rome had “turned fairly round about the Emperor,” in relation to his intervention in the Italian cause, and that the pope was “in despair” because “England & France will go together in the Congress.” On 12 January 1860, after the Congress was called off, it was not “despair” in the pope she vividly described to her sister, however, but “the pope’s rage”—“quite a painful & degrading thing to see,” as it was described to the Brownings by Russell, who as the “English representative” was “on excellent terms with the Vatican” (LTA 2: 443).

In the same letter, EBB tells Arabella of her  “thin slice of a book (call it a wafer) coming out directly, I hope: — called, ‘Poems before Congress,’” predicting that “You wont like it & everybody else in England wont like me because of it. They are political poems – lyrical.” She added that the collection included her “ode to Napoleon,” which she had earlier mentioned to her sister on 7 December as “in [her] desk at present” (LTA 2: 443-4, 435). EBB’s title alludes to the high-stakes events represented in her “political” and “lyrical” collection in suggestive ways. Temporal and spatial connotations come together in the double meaning of the preposition “before,” implying both poems composed prior to the date set for the meeting of European powers in January 1860 and poems presented for consideration before the projected Congress of nations.  Her “Preface” similarly doubles the reference of the term “Congress” through a strategic and oblique allusion to the savage caning inflicted on abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by Congressman Preston Smith Brooks in the American Senate in 1856. EBB instances this dispute over slavery involving an American Congressman to advance a stipulative definition of freedom, noting that “freedom of senate” does not mean “freedom to cudgel a dissident member” (WEBB 4: 554 n.5).  Her transatlantic allusion lays the foundation for her inclusion of an abolitionist poem about American Slavery in a volume about Italian independence, recognizes the United States as a significant player in debates about European politics, and extends the reference of “Congress” to include national houses of representatives and/or senates.[7] Additional poems within the collection further expand the meaning of the “Congress” in her title from an aborted meeting of European nations, to the vision of “one confederate brotherhood” or international league of nations that she presents in the poem “Italy and the World,” where Italian unification prefigures the “solution” to “earth’s municipal, insular schisms” (ll. 48, 36-7, WEBB 4: 594-95).

The title’s complications, compounded by the inclusion of “A Curse for a Nation,” understandably provoked debates in the British reviews in the spring of 1860. The Morning Post, for instance, wrote, “‘Poems before Congress’ does not exactly convey what the writer means; and is more likely to be wrongly than rightly interpreted now that the Congress to which she refers in anticipation is postponed sine die. It is a great disappointment to have an expectation raised that a great genius has produced a great work on a great subject, and then to find that expectation unfounded” (3). Conversely, other reviews seized on the temporal significance of “before” as a crucial framework through which to interpret the poetry and, more particularly, EBB’s representation of the French Emperor in the opening ode “Napoleon III in Italy.” While reviewers did not comment directly on the larger connotations of “Congress” in the title, several did vigorously debate the collection’s cosmopolitan vision, especially in relation to the “confederate brotherhood” of nations the poet calls for in “Italy and the World.” Further intense debate centered on the closing work, “A Curse for a Nation,” with most British reviewers interpreting it as a curse on England for its military neutrality in the cause of Italian liberation, while others interpreted it as a curse on America but queried its relation to the title and the focus of the collection. Thus a reviewer from the Leader and Saturday Analyst found that the inclusion of “A Curse for a Nation” harmed the unity of EBB’s collection (425), while William Edmonstone Aytoun remarked in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, “what America has to do with European Congresses or the settlement of the affairs of Italy, we cannot comprehend” (494).

Aytoun’s suggestion that the connection between “European Congresses” and America is incomprehensible may point to reasons for C.S. Francis’s decision to retitle the American edition Napoleon III in Italy. And Other Poems, although it was set from the “sheets of the English edition” (Barnes 58).[8] On the one hand, this title avoided the confusion arising from a title alluding to a European Congress that had not taken place, acknowledged the less Eurocentric geopolitical interests of the US, and side-stepped the question of the volume’s unity by employing the convention of titling a collection (generally a more miscellaneous one) after the lead poem. On the other hand, the altered title provided a hook to readers by posing the question, what was the French Emperor “Napoleon III,” in fact, doing “in Italy”? Was he an invader, a colonizer, or a liberator? Although the American reception of the collection titled Napoleon III in Italy was more positive overall than the British response to Poems before Congress, the reaction to EBB’s portrayal of Louis Napoleon was mixed in both British and American reviews. In short, both Poems before Congress and  Napoleon III in Italy meant many different things to readers in 1860.

III. Historical Contexts: Napoleon III and His Intervention “in Italy”

Whether hostile or sympathetic to the politics of EBB’s collection, most reviewers focused more on the opening ode to Napoleon III, with its chanting refrain “Emperor / Evermore,” than on the closing poem “A Curse for a Nation.” “[T]he offence has been less in the objections to England than in the praise of Napoleon,” the English diplomat Russell noted in describing Poems before Congress to RB as a “sensation” in London (FF 328). This English response to “the praise of Napoleon” was hardly surprising, given historical circumstances, political developments, and recent events in the spring of 1860. We briefly outline these here first, along with the views of the Brownings, Russell, and others on Napoleon III’s intervention in Italian revolutions, as a context for both the many topical allusions in the reviews and the reaction the collection provoked.

In 1860, Italy did not exist as a nation, although as the term Risorgimento suggests and the Italian revolutionary uprisings of 1848-49 indicate, aspirations for its “rebirth,” liberation, and unification were intensely and widely expressed. The Italian peninsula in the early nineteenth century took the form of kingdoms and city-states oppressed by absolutist governments re-established by the Congress of Vienna (1815) after the Battle of Waterloo and defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Vienna settlement incorporated northern states, such as Lombardy and Venetia, into the Austrian empire; other northern or central states, such as Tuscany, were ruled by Dukes or Grand Dukes under the control of Austria, whose influence extended throughout Italy. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in the west/northwest was subject to both Austrian and French influence, but more predominantly to the French. French influence was even more pronounced in the case of Savoy on the borders of France and Switzerland, which had been absorbed into the French First Republic in 1792 but returned to the control of the Kingdom of Sardinia by the Vienna Congress in 1815. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) was ruled by the Spanish monarchy, while the Papal States in central Italy were governed by the Pope as a temporal sovereign, though in a symbiotic relationship with the Austrian regime’s suppression of freedom of ideas, assembly, and the press.[9]

Through the 1850s, there was a gradation of conflicting views in England on Italian aspirations for liberty, registered in the 1859 shift from firm support for Austria under the Earl of Derby’s Conservative government to the Lord Palmerston’s Liberal government. Lord Palmerston brought a more studied political neutrality, but also (in EBB’s eyes) a highly limited, liberal sympathy for Italy belied by the lack of any concerted action in the cause. On 15 August 1859 she remarked to Isa of “the last debate in the House of Commons” that she liked “none of the men—Russell, Palmerston,—it’s all unworthy, more or less. If there’s a congress they’ll speak to the length of their letter”; she also rejected Palmerston’s “moral neutrality in the face of a position which must be either right or wrong” (FF  229). The reviews of Poems before Congress express these differing Conservative (or “Tory”) and Liberal political positions, but also, in a few cases, more militant or radical support for Risorgimento aspirations not unlike EBB’s own.

Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and the first President of France to be elected by popular vote, was an even more volatile and polarizing subject in England than Italian liberation—especially after his 1851 coup d’etat and his coronation as Emperor Napoleon III on 2 December 1852, the 48th anniversary of the coronation of Napoleon I. The French Emperor’s actions became especially contentious after he joined forces with the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia against the Austrian Empire in an alliance negotiated by the Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Camilio Benso, the Count of Cavour, on behalf of its king, Victor Emmanuel II. The outbreak of the Second War of Italian Independence in late April 1859, to which Napoleon III committed half of the entire French army under his own command, led to exaggerated fears of a French invasion of England. As a result, volunteer “riflemen’s clubs” sprang up in numerous English locations, urged on by Tennyson’s patriotic polemic “Riflemen Form!” in the Times and inflamed by the Times’s own reporting—“doing its best or worst to set the world on fire” by describing Napoleon as “‘provoking Europe to war,’” in EBB’s view (LTA 2: 404, 435).[10] In Poems before Congress, EBB most directly expresses her scornful response to these “riflemen’s clubs” in “Italy and the World,” observing of England, “She carries her rifles too thick for me, / Who spares them so in the cause of a brother” (ll. 99-100, WEBB 4: 597). Furthermore, she inserted lines satirizing the “rifles” and English “national defences” in “A Tale of Villafranca” (ll. 48-49, WEBB 4: 578)—lines she had considered too acerbic for the Athenaeum editors to accept when this poem was first published on 24 September 1859 (LTA 2: 422).

“A Tale of Villafranca” addresses the conclusion of the war effected by the French Emperor’s armistice with Austria at Villafranca, signed on 11 July 1859, which agreed, among other things, to the restoration of autocratic rulers (essentially Austrian puppets) like Tuscany’s “Grand Duke” in the Central Italian states. The Villafranca treaty dashed or destabilized the high hopes of many that Napoleon III would help to liberate and unify the Italian states. In “First News from Villafranca,” published after Poems before Congress in the New York Independent (7 June 1860), EBB expresses an unidentified speaker’s stunned disbelief in response to the sudden blow of this “news”: “Peace, peace, peace, do you say? … ‘No, not Napoleon!’… he … [who] led the fight,” he [who] “we trusted, honoured, used / Our hopes and hearts for” (“A New Poem from Mrs. Browning” ll. 1, 19, 21, 22-23). Reflecting the impressions many had at the time, the speaker also raises the possibility of collusion between a “pair of Emperors,” the French with the Austrian (ll. 13-23). Interpretations of Louis Napoleon’s motives at Villafranca varied. Had he betrayed the cause he seemed to support so vigorously in order to serve his own ends, as many assumed? Or was his hand forced by circumstances, including fear of Prussia joining with Austria and the combined resistance of Europe’s established order? Was he a “great man” whose “great Deed” to “help a people’s need” (ll. 8-9, 14) was thwarted by “sovereigns, statesmen, north and south” (l. 22), as EBB presented the case in “A Tale of Villafranca”? She further suggested in her letters that he made a “treaty” which he knew could only develop in one way, by enraging the papal government (LTA 2: 447), thereby leading to the further military action required to produce a free and united Italy.

Even after Villafranca, though, and even in England, and more especially among English people in Italy, as among many Italians themselves, Napoleon’s military intervention in Italy won many admirers or elicited mixed opinions that fluctuated with the unfolding “pressure of events,” to use EBB’s terms again. Opinions also reflected the differing ideological outlooks shaped by literary and political networks and periodical cultures. Living in Italy, moving among prominent Italian patriots and “many English liberals” and omnivorously reading Italian newspapers (EBB said she  “generally read through three newspapers a day”), the Brownings were exposed to enthusiastic interpretations of Napoleon’s intervention in Italy. For instance, EBB vividly reports the cries of the people “‘Viva la Francia, Viva l’Italia, viva l’Imperatore dis Francesi’” in Rome at Easter 1859 in the packed piazza of St. Peter (LTA 2: 404, 430). The poet also reported to Arabella the very positive views of Louis Napoleon she heard expressed by prominent Italian statesmen, like the distinguished writer Massimo d’Azeglio, Piedmont’s Prime Minister from 1849-52 and a friend of the Brownings. D’Azeglio told her in late March 1859 that “Napoleon had made himself great by comprehending the time,” and that he disbelieved in the idea that the French Emperor was after “territorial aggrandizement” for France; he also described the “jealousies on the part of England … as small in themselves, & without foundation in fact” (LTA 2: 404, 399-400).

The Brownings’ close friend Isa Blagden was, like EBB, an ardent supporter of the French Emperor’s joining cause with the rulers of Piedmont and Sardinia to liberate Italy from Austrian oppression. On 30 December 1859, EBB remarked to Isa, “Think of Odo Russell, that keen politician … coming to me the other day & saying .. ‘The Emperor is more an Italian than a Frenchman—everything that comes out proves it more & more .. he has done everything to this one end. Whatever has seemed in another sense has been necessitated by the desire to keep in with his colleagues, the Kings & Queens of the earth’” (FF 268). She narrates the same account of Russell’s remarks to Arabella twice, in letters of 25-26 December 1859 and 12 January 1860. This repetition was possibly motivated by her evident desire to call in question her sister’s views of Napoleon III shaped by the Times—which EBB repeatedly denounces as a “tool of Austria” and as filled with “infamous lies” about Italy and Napoleon. She urged her sister to read instead the “honest historians” of Italian affairs in the Daily News or the Morning Post (LTA 2: 400, 409, 411). In the first of her two accounts of Russell’s remarks to Arabella, EBB emphasizes the diplomat’s opinion that the French Emperor was acting in the best interests of the Italians, even though Russell himself “is very keen & very English” and “[h]is prejudices all run against Napoleon”; in the second account, she adds that Russell’s views had changed from “last autumn,” when he “took a very different view.” But he is “now convinced that Emperor Napoleon has from the first to the last meant well & nobly by Italy” (LTA 2: 438-43). The English diplomat’s reported remarks on Napoleon as motivated by genuine sympathy for Italian liberty but thwarted by the “Kings & Queens” of the Europe are surprisingly akin to the vision EBB expresses in her ode “Napoleon III in Italy” and even more directly in “A Tale of Villafranca.”

RB as well initially viewed Louis Napoleon’s intervention in the Italian cause with hope and enthusiasm, despite his much discussed quarrels with EBB in 1851-52 over the French ruler’s coup d’etat, the plebiscite that confirmed its results at the end of December 1851, and the referendum in December 1852 that ended the Second Republic and established Napoleon as Emperor.  EBB opens her ode to Napoleon III with an allusion to the 1851 plebiscite, which established universal manhood suffrage among other reforms:

Emperor, Emperor!
From the centre to the shore,
From the Seine back to the Rhine,
Stood eight millions up and swore
By their manhood’s right divine
So to elect and legislate,
This man should renew the line
Broken in a strain of fate
And leagued kings at Waterloo (ll. 1-9).

As these opening lines indicate, “Napoleon III in Italy” also connected the 1851 plebiscite in France and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte by “leagued kings at Waterloo,” helping to explain why both earlier events reverberate in the reviews that greeted her 1860 collection, and also illustrating the recursive loops that complicate linear chronologies. Like many of their contemporaries, the Brownings sharply differed as to whether or not Napoleon’s position was legitimized through the vote of the “eight millions,” given the prior deaths of thousands at the Paris barricades during his coup. Yet both poets as political “liberals”—indeed, EBB considered herself an outright “democrat” (LTA 1: 441)—were in 1859 highly critical of England’s implicit support of Austria under the Derby Conservative administration. EBB told Arabella in a letter written 29-31 March 1859 that, as her sister knew “well,” Robert “in general sympathizes little with me in my ‘Napoleonism’ so called” but  “thinks entirely with me on this Italian question” (LTA 2: 400). Indeed, as she explained to her husband’s sister Sarianna Browning:

Robert and I began to write on the Italian question together, and our plan was (Robert’s own suggestion) to publish jointly. When I showed him my ode on Napoleon he observed that I was gentle to England in comparison to what he had been, but after Villafranca (the Palmerston Ministry having come in) he destroyed his poem and left me alone, and I determined to stand alone. What Robert had written no longer suited the moment; but the poetical devil in me burnt on for an utterance. (LEBB 2: 368-9)

RB would later come to represent Louis Napoleon in a highly critical light in Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society (1871). However, looking back to 1859 from that later vantage point, he confessed to Isa regarding the French Emperor, “we all, in our various degrees, took the man on trust, believed in his will far too long after the deed was miserably inadequate to what we supposed the will” (cited WEBB 4: 549).[11]

The view that Napoleon all along had planned to extend the imperial reach of France grew more widespread following the French annexation of Nice and Savoy. This was agreed to in the Treaty of Turin: signed on 24 March 1860, just twelve days after Poems before Congress appeared from Chapman and Hall. [12] Before this key development, EBB had acknowledged to Arabella on 7-8 February that “Napoleon III … being a man, after all, may be a cheat like the rest” (LTA 2: 448). After it, she continued to defend the French Emperor, arguing that many of the “noblest” Italians, including D’Azeglio and Cavour, supported the Turin treaty; that the Savoyards considered themselves French and “the populations have a right of choice”; and that the hypocritical British had annexed “districts in India against every sort of right.” But she then ceased the epistolary sparring, writing “No more politics. I know L.N. is ‘antichrist,’—after the view of your prophets, & must turn out a villain” (LTA 2 :454-5). And “antichrist” he was to an increasing extent in England.

IV. “‘[A]ntichrist’” vs “Sublime Deliverer”:  Napoleon III and Anglo-Italian Politics 

In Italy, where high hopes for Italian freedom were raised by the French-Sardinian victories in the June 1859 Battles of Magenta and Solferino,

Painting of Napoleon at the Battle of Salerno

Figure 2: Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, _Napoleon at the Battle of Solferino_ 1863

EBB’s own son Pen shared in the enthusiasm, “melt[ing] into tears” when she first read part of “Napoleon III in Italy” to him in January 1860 (LTA 2: 444). The tears were unsurprising in a boy whom EBB had described singing, at five and a half, “a beautiful opera of his own composition about Napoleon and the milkman,” inspired by France’s alliance with England in the Crimean War, as Beverly Taylor points out (412). In England, however, a few years later, the close conjunction of the French annexation of Nice and Savoy with the publication of Poems before Congress in March of 1860 contributed to a very different response from many readers. The charged political environment that EBB’s “wicked book” boldly entered is captured by the Leader and Saturday Analyst review on 5 May 1860. Citing Stanza XX from “Italy and the World,” in which the speaker says, “I cry aloud in my poet fashion / Viewing my England o’er Alp and sea” (ll. 96), the Leader critic observes:

In this day, when all England is arguing against France, when every county and every town is full of volunteer corps and amateur militiamen, when in Parliament, in the pulpit, and in the press, one voice is raised against the greed of France and the designs of another Napoleon, when Poet Laureates write war songs to order … when every one who utters a word in palliation of the Imperial policy is accused of want of patriotism—at such a time, … [s]o sings the authoress of “Aurora Leigh,” and the burden of her song throughout is that France is right and England is wrong. (425)

“Still, before we condemn utterly” Poems before Congress, the reviewer proceeds, “let us hear what she has to say.” Writing after the majority of the reviews had appeared, the Leader critic proved to be one of the most sympathetic listeners to the poet crying to “England o’er Alp and sea,” evidently because of a belief that EBB was “right” in many respects about Napoleon’s intervention in Italy. This review, which we return to after considering the tenor of those that came before, thus itself calls in question the claim that “all England” spoke with “one voice.”  While a dominant accusatory voice was raised against the authoress who dared to “sing” that “France is right and England is wrong” about “the designs of another Napoleon,” there were also a smaller number of supportive or more nuanced responses from the start.

Two early reviews published on 24 March 1860 in the Critic and the Atlas exemplify the wide range of reactions to Poems before Congress. Quoting the opening three stanzas of “Napoleon III in Italy” to illustrate “Mrs. Browning’s opinions upon Continental politics,” the Critic reviewer flatly observes:

Frankly, we like neither the opinions nor the manner in which they are conveyed. Like Miriam, Mrs. Browning stands before the men of war and proclaims the passage of Italian patriotism through the Red Sea of Magenta and Solferino; but unlike Miriam, her note is the note of the raven croaking over the slain, rather than the clear song of triumph celebrating the advent of new-born liberty. Living, as she does, in the very heart of Italian politics, opinions and interests which to us seem very small take with her gigantic proportions. Everything Italian is magnified in her eyes. So enthusiastic is she, that she puts her faith in the purity of Louis Napoleon’s motives, and believes that he came to Italy for no meaner motive than to set Italy free. He is a demigod in her eyes—this fortunate speculator, this shrewd and crafty politician, who shifts nationalities under treaties, as a man would peas under a thimble. She believes that he who has enslaved his own subjects, and holds them bound and gagged with a bayonet at their throats, is the saviour of the world, the proclaimer of the gospel of liberty. (362)

This review incorporates several patterns repeated in subsequent hostile reviews: Napoleon III is a “crafty” imperialist, an enemy to liberty, and an autocrat who has “enslaved his own subjects”; EBB is guilty of gullible hero-worship in seeing him as a “demigod”; Italian affairs are “small” or marginal to England’s interests; and Austrian oppression of Italy is not even mentioned.

On the same day the Critic review appeared, Edmund Ollier, the Liberal editor of the Atlas,[13] published a diametrically opposed opinion of the works in Poems before Congress. “We know perfectly well beforehand what will be said of them by those who hate the cause they glorify—by deniers of popular rights, lovers of Austrian ‘order,’ scorners of sentiment, worshippers of aristocratical exclusiveness and petty international jealousies,” Ollier begins (231). Predicting (accurately) some additional grounds on which the book would be attacked, including the “ruggedness” of its form (see Section VI), he describes it as “luminous with noble thought and nobler feeling,” presenting poems coming “white-hot and scorching from the furnace of love and scorn, of hope and disappointment, of joy and grief, of passion and prophecy” (231-2). He notes the timeliness of the collection, not by framing it in relation to the shifting of “nationalities under treaties” at Villafranca or in the French annexation of Nice and Savoy but by noting its connection to democratic rights in Italy. “[W]e cannot conceive a better moment” for the appearance of these poems “than the very week which has been signalised by the splendid electoral triumph of the Central Italians over the cause of Austria and the Pope,” he remarks, alluding to the plebiscites in Umbria and Emilia in mid-March in which an overwhelming majority of the people voted for union with Piedmont (FF li). All these comments are prefatory to Ollier’s key point regarding the representation of Napoleon III in Poems before Congress:

Mrs. Browning has the courage and faith in eternal principles of justice to hail, as the incarnation of a majestic truth, the very man whom demagogues and Tories over all the globe have conspired to stamp with odium. She sees that Napoleon the Third is great, by the double greatness of his own large nature and of the popular will ….  This is the view of Napoleon’s character and position which we have laboured to maintain in these columns; and to find our conceptions thus exalted into poetry by a genius such as Mrs. Browning’s, may well compensate us for the misrepresentation of narrower minds (232).

Ollier was so pleased to find his opinions of Napoleon mirrored by a poet of “genius” against “narrower minds” that his sentence to this effect (“This is the view…”) appears twice in his evidently hastily edited review (232-33). He also wrote to the author herself: EBB describes his letter to Isa on 3 April 1860 as thanking her for her “politics & courage & justice” (FF 323); she similarly told Arabella that he had sent her his “warmly laudatory notice” and thanked her for “giving a voice ‘to political & international opinions’ which had always been his own—It was ‘courageous & noble’ to .. so & so” ( LTA 2: 454).

Much as the Critic review sets some of the  patterns for negative responses to Poems before Congress, Ollier’s in the Atlas exemplifies key themes and tactics in the smaller number of more positive reviews. Thus Ollier presents Italian liberation not as “small” but as a noble cause, linked with advances in democratic rights across nations, and he views Napoleon III not as an autocrat but as a man stamped as such by “demagogues and Tories.” Instead of invoking Napoleon’s oppression of his own people with a “bayonet at their throat” he cites Stanza IX in EBB’s “Napoleon III in Italy,” with its vivid invocation of multi-pronged Austrian subjugation and harried Italians with bayonets at their throat rising in resistance:

Out of the dust, where they ground them,
Out of the holes, where they dogged them,
Out of the hulks, where they wound them
In iron, tortured and flogged them;
Out of the streets, where they chased them,
Taxed them and then bayonetted them,—
Out of the homes, where they spied on them,
(Using their daughters and wives),
Out of the church, where they fretted them,
Rotted their souls and debased them,
Trained them to answer with knives,
Then cursed them all at their prayers!—
Out of cold lands, not theirs,
Where they exiled them, starved them, lied on them;
Back they come like a wind …  (ll. 205-18).

“How eloquent, how true with the truth of deep sympathy, is this picture of the uprising of the Italians at the signal of Piedmont and of France!” Ollier exclaims (232). He also cites as a “burst” of music the first half of Stanza V (ll. 64-81), in which EBB presents “poets of the people” meeting the French Emperor on the “Alpine snows,” and “[a]t last … find thee great enough to praise,” giving the passage a very different spin than those with opposing views (see, for example, Punch below). Rather than suggesting that EBB is guilty of hero-worship, Ollier argues as she does that Louis Napoleon draws his “greatness” from the “popular will,” advancing an interpretation of the December 1851 referendum that confirmed his coup (with a vote of 7,440,000 to 646,000)  similar to the poet’s own in her allusion to the “eight millions” (l. 4).[14] As EBB repeatedly remarked in her correspondence, she saw Napoleon as having more legitimacy than other rulers because the majority of the people supported him. As she put it to Isa on 2 April 1860, “I respect France, & ‘l’idée Napolienne,’—yes, but conscience & the populations more”—I dont sell my soul to Napoleon, & applaud him quand mêne” (FF 320). For Ollier, EBB is “simply, bravely, profoundly right” in stating of the French Emperor (in Stanza XIV of “Napoleon III in Italy”) that “‘[t]he people’s blood runs through him’” (l. 302).

Poems before Congress also attracted an early and relatively sympathetic review in the London Daily News (29 March 1860), founded in 1846 by Charles Dickens to provide a liberal voice in opposition to conservative newspapers such as the Times, and described by one historian as the “principal Liberal newspaper” of the mid-Victorian period.[15] “What is there in that wonderful Italian peninsula which excites the interest and sympathy of all minds capable of passing beyond the boundary of self? How is it that Englishmen, who reside there, become as devoted to the Italian cause as the race itself?” the reviewer asks, instancing Byron, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor among English authors, along with several prominent American authors and artists such as Margaret Fuller Ossoli and William Whetmore Story (2). Having placed EBB in good company, the Daily News reviewer then remarks:

Mrs. Barrett Browning now dedicates to the country of her adoption a handful of passionate verses. … Mrs. Browning profoundly sympathizes with the movement of the Italian mind against Austria, against the Pope, and against the sectional disruptions which have wasted the strength of Italy and made her what she is. She regards Victor Emmanuel[16] as the man of the present and the future; she applauds, in an ecstasy of delight and admiration, the conduct of the Emperor Napoleon in going to war on behalf of an oppressed nationality; and she upbraids England for standing aside, and carping at France for not doing the same. The result is a work of considerable power—rough, wild, savage even in parts, yet all a-glow with enthusiasm, from the first page to the last. (2)

The Daily News reviewer also defends the grounds for EBB’s representation of Napoleon III, although with more caveats than Ollier in the Atlas:

The first poem—“Napoleon III in Italy”—was evidently written during the progress of the war, and reflects the heat and brightness of the enthusiasm naturally prevalent in Italy in the days of May and June, when the Austrian shadow was moving back towards the frontiers before the light of the battles which France and Piedmont were fighting side by side. This excitement was not confined to the Peninsula; it was shared by many Englishmen; and though we cannot in these columns adopt Mrs. Browning’s Napoleonic fervors, we can at any rate appreciate the motives which suggested her eulogy. The poetess does not admire the successful dictator because of his power, but because, as it seems to her, he represents the new ideas of nationality, disinterestedness, and popular rule, which she thinks are destined to lead the world into a wiser and holier future. What she would say of the annexation of Nice we know not. (2)

Two key arguments are here employed by the Daily News reviewer to defend EBB’s representation of Napoleon III: unfolding events (the “enthusiasm naturally prevalent in Italy” during “the progress of the war”) and her association of the “successful dictator” with “new ideas of nationality, disinterestedness, and popular rule.” These arguments recur in the reviews, sometimes to support EBB’s political opinions in Poems before Congress, sometimes to attack them.

The first of these arguments implicitly or explicitly plays upon the “before” in the title of EBB’s collection, a tactic most wittily embodied by a facetious “postscript” to “Napoleon III in Italy” in Punch magazine on 7 April 1860 (137). Echoing (with a twist) EBB’s image of Napoleon III crossing the Alps in Stanza V, Punch emphasizes what came after the Franco-Piedmontese war with Austria and the aborted Congress—the French annexation of Nice and Savoy:

MR. PUNCH presents his best compliments to MRS. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (of whose genius there is not a more devoted and discriminating worshipper than himself), and having just read her Poems before Congress, and specially her outpour of womanly gratitude for the supposed good conduct of their friend, L.N., MR. P. will not trouble MRS. B. to send him over the Postscript, which he knows that, on becoming acquainted with the truth, she must be composing. He has done it himself, for her, and hastens to publish it.

XX.

Stop! Ho! I bar!
I’ve been going a little too fast,
I thought the Imperial Star
Was blazing too brightly to last,
And now it goes out with a smell.
What, does the Sworder of Edom
Come driving a piece of trade,
And selling Italian freedom
By the yard instead of the blade?
Hanging at France’s waist
The sun-red tops of my Alps,
As a savage’s girdle is graced
By a row of his crimson scalps.
Ah me! Well, well!
Must I then rank him, perforce, a cur,
Him I had deemed a brave hound;
And in the rich blood of Corsica,
Still must the puddle be found?
Marching his soldiers come. Such is [the]
Terrible end of my hopes,
After enfranchising Duchies,
Scaring the Last of the Popes,
Now he goes stealing the Slopes.
EMPEROR
EVERMORE.

A second stanza follows in which the speaker begs “to retract” all she has said in the “vaunt” of Napoleon III, explains that she had forgotten the “second grim day of December”—the day  Napoleon took the throne as Emperor—and endorses the English riflemen’s clubs: “Ye have a right to be scowling, / Sons of old England free … Look to your shores” (cited FF 353). Despite MR. PUNCH’s playfully grim vision of Napoleon III, the Brownings themselves seem to have enjoyed this parody: RB copied it out in its entirety in a letter to Isa of 19 May 1860, saying, “See what I have copied out from Punch—capital!” (FF 352-3).

The mixed review in John Bull, published on the same day as the Punch parody (7 April), follows the pattern set by the Daily News, invoking unfolding events not to mock or criticize Poems before Congress but to defend it. Citing EBB’s own allusion to the “pressure of events” in her “Preface,” the John Bull reviewer argues for making “full allowance” for both “woman and poet” because “enthusiasm” and “burning sympathy” give “fire and energy to her verse” (281). Notably, this review begins on the same page in the John Bull in which the periodical’s Austrian correspondent defends Austria and terms Napoleon III the “public idol” of European “liberalism” fortunately exposed by the annexation of Savoy. The reviewer of EBB’s collection takes a somewhat differing view of Austrian-Italian relations than the correspondent, while still defending the British government’s approach. He remarks that “Napoleon III. is the hero of Poems before Congress, and that being so, it is not surprising that Mrs. Browning should be excessively disgusted at the part England has taken in regard to the late Italian war” (218). As he further explains,

There is no doubt a large class of talkers in this country who merit her wrathful denunciation. We have our own opinion, and perhaps more contemptuous than hers, of the hypocrites who twaddle about the identity of the revolutionary causes in Italy with all that was most essentially just and true, and yet would not lift a finger or spend a silver to help that cause. Mrs. Browning says rightly ‘non-intervention in the affairs of a neighbouring state is a high political virtue; but non-intervention does not mean passing by on the other side when your neighbor falls among thieves.’ But which is the neighbour and which is the thief? (219)

Having posed this key question, however, the John Bull critic flatly states the respects in which he believes “Mrs. Browning” to be wrong. Citing examples of some politically fraught intrigues in Italy, the review concludes, “In this diversity of opinion and sympathy no English Ministry would be likely to interfere on either side. Nor would they, notwithstanding Mrs. Browning’s indignation, have been justified in doing so”—more especially because the “revolutionary party in Italy … contrived to hang back and see the fighting done by others” (219).

This view of the Italian revolutionaries was one also promulgated in the Times—figuring among the “infamous lies” the conservative newspaper circulated about Italian affairs, according to EBB, despite the “willingness to sacrifice” and the suffering among “all classes” of Italians (LTA 2: 409). Even though she recommended both the Daily News and the Morning Post to Arabella for their more “honest” reporting (LTA 2: 411), the review of Poems before Congress in the second of these newspapers on 14 April 1860 was much more in tune with the political perspective of the Times on Anglo-Italian affairs than with the quite positive response to both Risorgimento enthusiasm and EBB’s volume in the Daily News. Along with denouncing the collection’s title for setting up false expectations (see Section II), the Morning Post reviewer curtly criticized “Napoleon III in Italy” as a series of “everlasting pæans” to “the Emperor of the French in unrhythmical verses” and “Italy and the World” as “a rampant raid upon England and her cautious policy, and a very intemperate tirade upon her commercial disposition” (3).

If the relatively nuanced John Bull review endorses British government policy while also expressing some tolerance for EBB’s fervent support of Italian liberation, others were largely or completely condemnatory, like the reviews in the Morning Post and the Critic. For instance, the Spectator (31 March 1860) emphasized the idolatrous hero-worship of Napoleon III in the political “rhapsody” of Poems before Congress, commenting of its author: “The idol of her worship is power…. The individual who in our day presents the most striking aspect of power acquired by his personal deeds, and originating with himself, is Napoleon … and before him she prostrates herself in a paroxysm of chronic adoration. It is a woman’s mania,” the reviewer remarks, demonstrating the gendered prejudices that surface in several reviews, most notably Blackwood’s (see below). Chamber’s Journal (21 April 1860) notes the high approval of the “elected Autocrat of France” in “Napoleon III in Italy,” remarks that “bards” who like EBB would be “Prophet[s],” “rush in where Able Editors fear to tread,” alludes to Villafranca and the annexation of Savoy, and reports of Napoleon III, “We have heard that the writing of this English admirer of his are not unread by him”—adding that, if so, “The Emperor Napoleon must have had no little difficulty in recognising himself in such a mirror” (251-2). The Globe and Traveller review (16 April 1860) similarly focuses on the representation of Napoleon III, exclaiming that EBB’s “reverence” for him seems to be “founded on her conviction that his great aim is identical with that of the first [Napoleon],” drawing a parallel found in more than one review. And the reviewer expostulates, “Does she who loves freedom so much that her freedom of speech often runs into delirium – does she not comprehend that Liberty has no greater enemy in Christian times than this said first Napoleon ‘with his conquering face’” (l. 19)?[17] He concludes, “The whole spirit of this poem, ‘Napoleon the Third,’ is to us false and perverted” (277).

While the negative reviews of Poems before Congress were unanimous in seeing the opening ode as “false and perverted,” the poem in the collection in the voice of Napoleon III himself (“An August Voice”) was more baffling for critics. In this instance, EBB’s use of a dramatic monologue form to portray her “august” or eminent speaker reflecting upon events in August 1860 (i.e., following the peace settlement of Villafranca) generated strikingly contradictory readings, as we note below (see Section VI). Whereas some reviewers assumed that the poem portrayed the French Emperor in a manner one might expect of his “worst enemies,” as the John Bull reviewer put it (281), others interpreted the poem in ways that reconciled the “August Voice” with the portrayal of Napoleon III elsewhere in the collection as a heroic, if thwarted, intervener in the cause of Italian liberation.

Two of the most extended negative reviews of Poems before Congress, as of Aurora Leigh before it, appeared in the Saturday Review and Blackwood’s. Both periodicals were overtly aligned with the “tory faction,” to use EBB’s own politicized terms in denouncing members of the Conservative party for speaking “most violently” and hypocritically about “the Savoy question” in Parliament (LTA 2: 454). Given their political liberalism, the Brownings fully expected scathing treatments of Poems before Congress from these quarters. As RB remarked to Isa, “Ba[18] … finds herself just as directly attacked by every political article [the Saturday Review] prints. Same of Blackwood,” he added, “we should like to be the weekly & monthly annoyance of these fellows to the world’s end,” calling  them “our natural enemies” (FF 331). EBB similarly described the reviews in these periodicals as “virulent articles from enemies,” the Saturday Review one “sparing none of its native mud”—or as she elsewhere puts it, “aggressive mud” flung by a “mob of ‘Saturday Reviewers’” (LEBB 2: 379, 365). In her eyes, the lies or “fierce untruth” uttered in the Times on continental politics were regularly “sworn to by the ‘Saturday Review,’” a journal she described with a kind of revolted fascination as “a curiosity in vice” (LEBB 2: 359, 403). The Saturday Review’s “attack” on Poems before Congress on 31 March 1860, by Charles Synge Christopher Bowen, was true to form, coming from the periodical “widely known as the ‘Saturday Reviler’” for the conservative upper middle-class perspective adopted by its contributors and its hallmark clever “slashing” style.[19] It was accompanied by other slashes at EBB’s politics in the journal in a “leading article, in the course of an argument against France” (LTA 2:454-5).[20]

Bowen opens by mocking “Mrs. Browning’s poetical rhapsody” as “culpable, pitiable or silly” (402). Noting EBB’s “imprudent effort to obtain a hearing in her own person,” he satirically proceeds to treat her speaker in Poems before Congress as a “dramatic character” with an “idolatrous devotion to Napoleon III,” a “worshipper of Bonapartism” who has “for many years lived in Italy” surrounded by idle “dilettante Liberalism” or “[g]allicized Liberalism” that believes in “democracy or socialism,” instead of the genuine “liberty” achieved by the English, “the only free race of modern Europe” (403). Under such pernicious influences, “Mrs. Browning’s mouthpiece, or poetical organ has long ceased to understand that any political object can be worth regarding except the expulsion of the Austrians, and of the Princes whom they supported, from the provinces of Italy.” Quoting EBB’s critique of the English riflemen’s clubs in Stanzas XX and XXI (ll. 96-105) of “Italy and the World,” he denounces her words as “a delirium of imbecile one-sideness” by a “denationalized fanatic” against “the “Volunteer movement … intended for the defence of England and not for the liberation of Tuscany” (403). While Bowen facetiously imagines the bulk of the works in Poems before Congress as being presented by a masculine dilettante Liberal—a “bearded exile” who delivers an “Imperialist eulogy”—he identifies the speaker of “A Curse for a Nation” as a “priestess, or Pythoness” (see Section VI). In doing so, he adopts a metaphor earlier used G. S. Venables in his earlier “slashing” attack on Aurora Leigh in the Saturday Review and subsequently echoed by other conservative reviewers and critics.[21] As Bowen sees it, both speakers, however, exhibit the same “hysterical antipathy to England” (404).

Bowen’s use of “democracy” and “socialism” as pejorative terms suggests that he takes a very different view than EBB and Ollier of the plebiscite endorsing Napoleon’s rule after his 1851 coup and the universal manhood suffrage it established. The speaker in “Napoleon III in Italy” is presented as a “poor prattler” who is “deeply impressed with the act of the ‘eight millions’ . . . and, with the unfailing instinct of servility, he rejoices in the triumph of numbers over the intelligence and conscience which alone guard natural freedom” (403). This denigration of universal manhood suffrage as a “triumph of numbers” over “intelligence” reflects English politics as much as continental politics in a period when agitation was mounting in England for the expansion in franchise brought by the 1867 Second Reform Bill—the “signal political event of the 1860s” in Britain.[22] Underlying resistance to this democratic agitation—paradoxically associated with the election of an “Emperor” in France—is even more evident in Aytoun’s lengthy diatribe in Blackwood’s, “Poetic Aberrations” (April 1860), which EBB described in similar terms to Bowen’s as a “stone” and a “violent attack” (FF 326).

The core of this attack is less “A Curse for a Nation,” which Aytoun treats relatively briefly in the conclusion of his review, than “Napoleon III in Italy,” which he cites at some length, including Stanza V in which EBB envisions meeting the French Emperor on the “Alpine snows” and “warns” him to “maintain /God’s word, not England’s” and act as “‘Sublime Deliverer” of Italy from the chain “forged” by Austria (ll. 73-94). Responding like the reviewer in the Critic instead of Ollier in the Atlas, Aytoun observes, “The Emperor of the French is Mrs. Browning’s favourite hero. In him she sees the incarnation of justice and of might, and hails him as the great deliverer of the nations” (491). Aytoun then seizes upon Bowen’s (or Venables’s) metaphor of the “Pythoness,” and outdoes the “Saturday Reviler” by taking the comparison to grotesque extremes, picturing “Mrs. Browning” in her “worship” like the Apollonian priestess “foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breast heaving, her voice undistinguishable and shrill, as if she had an earthquake within her labouring for vent” (492).

This satire, along with Aytoun’s opening attack on women who “addict themselves to politics” (490), has often been cited in studies of the reception of Poems before Congress, though without noting that the politics he objects to is clearly liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan. Such female addicts, to his “shuddering fancy,” resemble “so many tricoteuses in the gallery of the National Convention,” he remarks, evoking the bloodthirsty French female revolutionaries whom Dickens had recently portrayed through the figure of the constantly knitting Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Aytoun’s focus, however, is on the present, not the French revolutionary past, as he invokes an imaginary list of “domestic female partisan[s]”: “Belinda on the ballot, Sophia on suffrage, Robina on reform, Barbara on the budget, Isabella on Italy, Henrietta on Hungary, Maggie on Mazzini, Gatty on Garibaldi, and Polly on the Poles” (490). In this list of women involved in an array of domestic and continental causes (the “ballot,” “suffrage,” and Hungarian as well as Italian liberation), Aytoun expresses his strong opposition to political positions that EBB, in April 1859, termed “advanced Liberal.” As she wrote to her sister-in-law, Sarianna Browning, from Rome: “We shall be perfectly satisfied here with French universal suffrage and the ballot, the very same democratical government which advanced Liberals are straining for in England” (LEBB 2: 311).

Significantly, Aytoun’s article on “Poetic Aberrations” is immediately followed in Blackwood’s by two poems that similarly oppose the “advanced Liberal” causes he denounces, especially as these relate to English agitation for expansion of the franchise. The first is a poem titled “THE RULERS OF THE LAND” satirizing the idea that the “Poor” or “WORKING-MEN” or the “UNTHINKING MULTITUDE” have the intelligence to become “the Rulers of the land.” The second is titled “OUR WORTHY FRIEND NAP. A NEW SONG” and presents Napoleon III as the devourer of “everything free”—“the freedom of FRANCE he devoured at a meal” (495).  The Conservative politics of Blackwood’s elsewhere emerge in Aytoun’s review of Poems before Congress as he discusses the Italian revolutionary movement, linking it to other “fermenting nationalities,” such as Ireland’s in the face of “indulgent Great Britain,” and opining that these were for a long time kept down in Europe by the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, “the best settlement which could be made under the circumstances” (491). Louis Napoleon’s cooperation with Sardinia to overthrow the Austrian empire put in place by this settlement may have been “paraded to the world as a spontaneous act of sublime generosity,” Aytoun observes, but adds

[t]he mask is now thrown away, because it can be worn no longer, and Louis Napoleon is calmly proceeding to the appropriation of his spoil. The farce of the Congress is now abandoned. France has the mastery of the position, and cares nothing for the opinion, and will not listen to the advice, of any other cabinet in Europe. (491)

In a more direct political critique, Aytoun also aims a cut at the English Liberal party’s policies in relation to Napoleon III: “we give Lords Palmerston and John Russell joy of the realisation of the extreme confidence which they did not hesitate to express in the single-heartedness, abnegation, and upright motives of the Emperor of the French” (493).

In Blackwood’s and the Saturday Review, as well as in some other hostile reviews, the attack on “liberalism” in Poems before Congress expands into a critique of cosmopolitanism in general; sympathetic reviews, in contrast, endorse the volume’s cosmopolitan vision. Thus Aytoun defends women taking part in politics if they acted patriotically to support “their lovers, husbands, brothers, for the fight….But cosmopolitanism is quite another thing, and so is identification with foreign nationalities (490).  Bowen in the Saturday Review similarly declares, “It is not permitted to Englishmen, or even to Englishwomen, to renounce … allegiance, loyalty, national instinct and the deep-rooted faith in freedom which shrinks from usurping upstarts as sensitively as from legitimate despots” (402). He presents Poems before Congress as a typical expression of the “deteriorating influences which affect the cosmopolitan English exile who divides his idleness between dilettante Liberalism and dilettante art,” in Paris, Florence, or “Liberal Italian casinos” (403). John Skelton’s review in Fraser’s turns to the past for models of “the cosmopolitan politician” idealized by “Mrs. Browning,” terming this figure “‘A steady patriot of the world alone, / The friend of every country—but his own’” (823). By citing George Canning’s 1798 satire of English radicals who supported French revolutionary ideas, Skelton underscored, as others did, the connections many made between Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon.[23] The John Bull reviewer more moderately supports EBB’s criticism of “national egoism,” but similarly links her “panting to break down the bounds of nationality all over the world” in poems such as “Italy and the World” to “cants about universal fraternity” in the “the days of Marat and Danton” (306). In contrast, the Daily News reviewer approves the vision of “the coming fusion of all nationalities” in “Italy and the World,” comparing it to Tennyson’s vision in “Locksley Hall” (2). Ollier in the Atlas more pugnaciously denigrates the “the foolish cry that the authoress is anti-English simply because she is cosmopolitan”—attributing the cry to “petty international jealousies” and noting that it is an “objection Mrs. Browning herself anticipated and replied to in her Preface” (231).

Entering such debates at a relatively late stage (5 May 1860), the reviewer in the Leader and Saturday Analyst not only evokes the embattled environment Poems before Congress entered (see above); he also seeks to steer a middle course on the larger issues at stake in conflicts over EBB’s most  polemical publication. Opening with a recollection of Goethe’s refusal to condemn Napoleon Bonaparte because he believed “that French and German are all members of one family,” he compares EBB’s sin against “her country’s creed” to the great German writer’s but suggests Goethe was “wiser” in keeping his views relatively private (425). On the more central issue of “Mrs. Browning’s version of the Napoleonic character,” the Leader critic is sceptical of her belief in “modern heroes” yet nevertheless notes that the French Emperor did in fact act on Italy’s behalf when England did not. The “honest truth” is that the English “as a nation, do not care much about Italy….. We did nothing for Italy; we never should have done anything; and we don’t intend to do anything,” he remarks, even though the “Chartists, if they did nothing else, exploded the old imposture of ‘moral force,’ and deserve some gratitude for their services in this respect” (425). In contrast, “[h]owever unpleasing the fact may be to us, there is no denying the simple truth, that Louis Napoleon has made Italy free. The deed, we ourselves say boldly, was a noble one; and even if we do not agree in her conclusion, we cannot wonder that one who loves Italy so well would fain believe herself, and lead others to believe, that the doer of the noble deed was himself noble also.” The Leader reviewer then analyses this uncomfortable truth further, observing that the English would not mind if the French got the credit for this deed:

[T]hey deserve it, as they had the work. What we cannot get over is Louis Napoleon. We have made up our minds so completely about him, we have written him down so confidently as a scamp and an adventurer, we don’t like anybody to assert the contrary. Supposing he is not the man we take him for, we have been wrong all along. The mere hypothesis upsets all our received doctrines about constitutional rights and middle class legislation and general respectability. Coups d’état and universal suffrage, and wars for an idea, and regard for facts in preference to laws are all equally antipathetic to us. (425)

Despite his reservations about the belief in “modern heroes” in Poems before Congress, the Leader reviewer also welcomes the “political aspect of the book,” judges the volume “worthy” of its author, and even finds a “peculiar charm” in it, turning to terms evocative of EBB’s manifesto that poetry should represent the present age in Book Five of Aurora Leigh: “We are somewhat weary of poems about King Arthur, or other ideal personages, and feel as if poetry were a new thing to us when it sings in living passion of a living time” (425).

While the Leader reviewer is surely right in pointing to the “received doctrines” in England unsettled by the portrait of Louis Napoleon in periodicals such as Blackwood’s and the Saturday Review, it was not only “demagogues and Tories,” as Ollier charged in the Atlas, who were unsettled by the French Emperor’s paradoxical association with universal manhood suffrage. Some political radicals with close associations to the Chartists[24] also saw Louis Napoleon as an enemy of liberty and “constitutional rights,” given the ambiguities surrounding the plebiscites that gave him autocratic powers and occasioned the Brownings’ own marital debates. Aytoun in the Tory quarterly Blackwood’s and William Howitt, closely associated with working-class activists and publications like the People’s Journal, make strange critical bedfellows. Yet Howitt’s denunciation of EBB’s praise of Napoleon III in an article in the Spiritual Magazine (July 1860) is not unlike the attack in Blackwood’s in some respects. Terming Louis Napoleon a “second modern Moloch,” Howitt describes the poet’s “admiration for this man, whose life is a lie” as “little if anything short of possession”:

From this Buonaparte element—the great element of modern unrest, which keeps all Europe one great barracks, and will never let it be quiet till it has trodden it out—she hopes the regeneration of nations! Suddenly, after he has lied to France, juggling it out of its republican freedom by the falsified dice of universal suffrage; and lied to Italy, promising to free it from the Alps to the Adriatic; and lied to all of Europe, promising to submit the question of the annexation of Savoy to it, before moving in it, her wild enchantment culminates in hymns of worship to him and dire curses on her country! (293-4)

In a follow-up exchange in the September issue of the Spiritual Magazine with a defender of EBB writing under the pen-name “RUTH,” Howitt reiterates his charges, rejecting her claim that the poet’s “admiration for” Louis Napoleon was “founded on a generous and noble enthusiasm, even if a mistaken one” (404-5).

Howitt’s harsh attack on the praise of Napoleon III in Poems before Congress also provoked “A Word for Mrs. Browning,” a more extended defence of the poet in September 1860 in [Weldon’s] Register of Facts and Occurrences Relating to Literature, the Sciences, and the Arts. While the author shares Howitt’s view of “the juggling of Bonaparte,” she or he simultaneously emphasizes, as the Daily News reviewer had done, that EBB’s poems were “written, ‘before Congress,’ – before Louis Napoleon had lied to Italy, if he really has lied; before he had lied to Europe” (21).[25] The Weldon’s contributor also repudiates the idea that “anything like worship of Bonaparte is exhibited in Mrs. Browning’s poems,” noting the poet’s criticism of flattering rulers in her “Preface.” Like some earlier reviewers—for example, in the Leader (425)—the writer cites and lauds EBB’s eloquent apostrophe to Italian rebirth in Stanzas VII and VIII of “Napoleon III in Italy” (“Now, shall we say / Our Italy lives indeed?” ll. 145-202). And like Ollier in the Atlas, the Weldon’s contributor cites the vivid evocation of Austrian oppression in the opening of Stanza IX (“Out of the dust, where they ground them” ll. 205-26), attributing it to the poet’s direct experience of the effects of Austrian oppression:

She has seen the women of Italy lashed, and worse than that,—by a brutal soldiery; the youth of Italy shot like dogs in a ditch; the manhood of Italy tortured and starved in loathesome dungeons; and, as Lord Palmerston recently expressed it, the very government of its most powerful state degenerate into a system of police and espionage. Mrs. Browning has not languidly heard or read of such things in her London drawing-room, but she has watched these horrors, on the spot, and has been doomed to feel and see that they were perpetuated by the respect of statesmen for the parchment bonds of Vienna;—and that her own land, with a quenchless love for freedom and progress, was nevertheless tied down by red tape, and was as hopeless as Italy herself, when the time came to cease talking, to act. Before these poems can be fairly judged, the feelings of sorrow and anguish by which the woman’s heart was torn, seeing these things, must be realised; and Italy must be viewed as she was, little more than a year ago. In a word, the slow fever that was consuming the youth of Italy, and burning in the veins of the poet-priestess who dwelt in their midst, must be felt in its intensity. (21)

As indicated by this vigorous defence of Poems before Congress—appearing in Weldon’s “rather late in the day,” as its author acknowledges (20)—debates over EBB’s representation of Napoleon’s intervention in Italy extended from the spring into the later months of 1860 in England. More often, English critics continued to condemn this aspect of the volume, like Skelton in Fraser’s in June 1860 (cited above), who finds the poet’s representation of Napoleon III the chief among the “grave literary and political sins” of EBB’s collection (818). Although Skelton defends politics as a fit subject for poetry (see Section VI), he sees poetry as “the handmaid of freedom” and finds “Mrs. Barrett Browning” guilty of treason in a sacred cause (818). “The foundations of Italian freedom cannot be laid by the unclean hands of a tyrant. The emancipation of Italy is insecure while it rests on the enslavement of Europe,” Skelton declares, though without mentioning the “enslavement” of many parts of Europe by Austria (820). Citing the passage in “Napoleon III in Italy” presenting the French Emperor as a “Sublime Deliverer” (l. 94), Skelton exclaims in disbelief, “The Emperor was perfectly disinterested when he undertook the Italian war! His unselfish attachment to Italy . . . forced him to quarrel with Austria! He did not mean to add Savoy to France, nor to rectify “the frontiers of the Empire!” (821-2).

Across the Atlantic, farther afield from the “frontiers” of the French “Empire,” the issue of “Napoleon III in Italy”—announced by the title of the American edition of Poems before Congress as well as its opening work—provoked less inflamed responses than it did in England. Yet even though there was more support in America for EBB’s representation of the French Emperor, reviewers split along parallel fault-lines. The New-York Times was first to the mark on 4 April 1860, with a review even more positive than the relatively favourable one in London’s Daily News on 29 March. Taking a position on Napoleon III radically different from that of the London Times, the New-York Times vigorously endorses both EBB’s perspective on Louis Napoleon as the “Deliverer” of Italy and her democratic conception of “liberalism”:

Mrs. Browning, when she writes of Italy and of the saviour of Italy, writes of matters which she understands…. A democrat in the simplest, and loftiest, and only worthy meaning of that much blasphemed and more bespattered term, she has judged the Sovereign of the French with patience, with single-mindedness, as those who speak history are bound to judge them who make history. The insolent folly and the parrot-like absence of all reflection with which the career of this extraordinary man has been so commonly passed upon by the cheap “liberalism,” both of England and America, have received no sterner rebuke than is read to them in these poems by a writer whose “liberalism” is a thing not of the lip but of the life. (2)

Comparing EBB’s “sentiments” towards the French Emperor to the “homage . . . rendered to him from the side of common sense by statesmen like Richard Cobden and John Bright,” the English apostles of free trade, the New-York Times also aimed a stroke at cautious and conservative European diplomatic manoeuvres. Thus the reviewer characterizes “The Tale of Villafranca” as “an inimitable table sketch, in which, by a few clean, quick touches, the faltering diplomacy of Europe and the great deed imagined by a great monarch are brought face to face for judgment before the simple, straightforward conscience of Italy” (2).

On 6 April, however, two days after the New-York Times expressed such enthusiastic support for EBB’s portrait of Napoleon III as the “saviour” of Italy, it was denounced in the Liberator, the radical abolitionist periodical founded by William Lloyd Garrison and African American activists. The writer begins with a brief nod to “Mrs. Browning as the most remarkable poet of the age”—an acknowledgement no doubt prompted by her anti-slavery poems “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and more especially “A Curse for a Nation,” both first published in the Boston Garrisonian annual, the Liberty Bell (see Section V). This ostensible review of Napoleon III in Italy. And Other Poems then proceeds, however, to an all-out attack on the praise of Napoleon in the collection’s opening ode, in an article so focused on this topic that it is titled “The French Emperor.” Citing EBB’s prefatory comments on being inspired to write by “truth and justice,” the Liberator writer asks, “Is it not a strange moral paradox, that such a ‘lover of truth and justice’ should regard the perfidious usurper of the liberties of France—whose hands are dripping with the best blood of the empire—as the true friend of Italian freedom and independence, bent on nothing but the highest and noblest of objects for Europe and mankind?” The reviewer then cites several passages from the ode describing the French Emperor; inserts “(!)” after ll. 331, 335, and 415;[26] refers to Napoleon III as “the French usurper”; and further expostulates: “This is personal infatuation, as unaccountable as it is intense. How can the man who has torn down all free institutions in his own country, and caused to be torn from the public gaze all the emblems and watchwords of freedom, be really interested in the freedom of Italy, or of any other nation? What if the wolf has put on his sheep’s clothing for the hour—is he any the less ravenous a beast? Does it prove that he has lost his appetite for mutton?” (54). The Liberator vigorously rejects as well the poet’s presentation of Napoleon III as an Emperor endorsed by the French people—the view explicitly supported by Ollier in the Atlas and implicitly supported in the New-York Times review. Instead, like Howitt in England, the Liberator rejects the “falsified dice of universal suffrage,” arguing that the “eight millions” were “manifestly acting only as electoral puppets, under the pressure of violent constraint, and not as free and independent voters” (54).

A subsequent review in the National Quarterly Review in June 1860 is much more in tune with the opinions of the New-York Times critic on “the Sovereign of the French” than with the Liberator’s denunciations of “the French usurper.” Considering Napoleon III in Italy. And Other Poems together with new editions of Aurora Leigh and of EBB’s collected Poems, the National Quarterly Review critic cites her earlier critique of her country’s “national prejudice” against the French as “light” in the opening of Book VI of Aurora Leigh (ll. 1-21); he furthermore notes that her “tribute” to  Napoleon is anticipated in this book of Aurora Leigh, in lines describing him as a “Cæsar” who “represents, not reigns,” a head with “all the people for the heart” (ll. 190-92). “If the poetess has since drawn a more elaborate picture—one still more complimentary to the French and their Emperor—has there not been ample reason for it?” the reviewer then asks of “Napoleon III in Italy”: “Her love of Italy would alone account for it” (191). More affirmatively, the writer judges that she has not “said an unfair or unjust word” in writing of Napoleon III as she does: “The worst that can be said of her in this respect is that she is perhaps rather enthusiastic in her praise of Louis Napoleon; but let us bear in mind that although her estimate of his character as a ruler, a statesman, and a philanthropist, is very high, it is by no means peculiar. Some of the greatest thinkers of our age, including Englishmen, entertain pretty much the same opinion of Napoleon III” (193). Unlike the Liberator in America and the Tory-aligned Blackwood’s and Saturday Review in England, the National Quarterly Review finds EBB’s defence of the plebiscite confirming Louis Napoleon as Emperor in her poem “elevated” and “forceful,” noting that she “had too much of the prophetic spirit to take part of the national abuse of the new Emperor” in England (194). He also emphasizes EBB’s warning to the French Emperor along with her praise of him, citing the lines from “Napoleon III in Italy” in which she speaks out as “[a]n English poet” to “warn” Napoleon to “maintain / God’s word” (ll. 85-6). The National Quarterly Reviewer  adds, “Napoleon might easily do worse than take advice from Mrs. Browning” in a poem whose “chief attraction” is that it “embodies the frank and honest opinion of a woman of undoubted genius—undoubtedly the best of living women poets. What would Napoleon I. not have given for equal admiration from Madame de Stael, and a much greater than De Stael is here” (194).

EBB was sent or otherwise gained access to copies of several American reviews. Although she does not mention the National Quarterly Review, the unreservedly positive New-York Times response prompted her to describe Americans to Arabella as “very generous,” remarking, “I hear on all sides that my book is received with warm applause … to say nothing of literary propositions in consequence of it.”  The “propositions” were for more poems on the “Italian question,” two of which alone brought her “some forty-five pounds” for publication in the Independent, the Congregationalist anti-slavery newspaper edited by Tilton (LTA 2: 463, 465). However, as the Liberator indicates, not all of the responses from the American press—even the anti-slavery press—were quite so “generous.”

In contrast to EBB, Harriet Martineau, who had close ties with the Garrisonians who published The Liberator, clearly thought the American reception of “Napoleon III in Italy” in America was far too “generous.”  Martineau sent a fierce criticism of EBB’s representation of the French Emperor for publication in the National Anti-Slavery Standard (5 May 1860), echoing that published in the Liberator a month earlier. EBB sent some extensive extracts of Martineau’s letter to Arabella, expressing her reaction with “!!”:

Harriet Martineau in a letter to an American paper on European politics, monstrously unjust & absurd, bestows a paragraph on my book not unkindly meant, I dare say, but the cool arrogance of which made me feel half inclined to anger & half to laughter. “I see by the newspapers as well as hear by private letters that you have got Mrs. B’s new poems ‘Before Congress.’ Some of us have been conscious of a desire to put off the arrival of that book among you, under a sense of shame that such a book should have been produced by such a woman . . . . . Those who know her mind after a study of many years will be the first to protest against the natural supposition that she is guilty of the coarse & vulgar worship of success exemplified by the flatterers of the French emperor . . without disputing that his present success blinds her to some of things which will disgust her if she lives to see his fall, we may confidently say that her aberration is mainly owing to an ideal & practical habit of mind which is no secret among her friends. There have been prior evidences of such misconception of the character of persons whom she supposed she thoroughly knew as may enable us to understand how she may fancy even Louis Napoleon a great man & a public blessing. It is a sad pity—not because any person in the world will adopt her view in the face of existing facts, but because it is a misfortune when literary genius diverges from its high path to deal falsely and with vice, & give fictitious names to a depraved ambition, & a tyranny & treachery unsurpassed in the history of the world.” !! (LTA 2: 467)

EBB exclaimed, for her part, at “Miss Martineau” sitting “on an altitude to lecture” her on “points” Martineau herself was “never supposed particularly strong on…!”;  as a riposte, she also reported the words of an unidentified American who had “just been” in Florence, saying that the poet “must be prepared for disfavor in England,” since she was a “hundred years in advance” of her countrymen and women “in politics” (LTA 2: 467-8).

Other prominent authors, like English reviewers, were more divided regarding the portrait of Louis Napoleon in Poems before Congress / Napoleon III in Italy than is often assumed. Scott Lewis notes that Martineau took “Matthew Arnold’s stance on the Italian question” to task in her letter to the National Anti-Slavery Reporter, along with EBB’s (LTA 2: 469, n14). Anna Jameson did not support EBB’s enthusiasm for the French Emperor (LEBB 2: 364), nor did John Forster (LTA 2: 462). William Michael Rossetti, however, “wrote Elizabeth from London within a week or two after receiving his copy of Poems before Congress that he too believed that Louis Napoleon was a great and noble leader and that he honoured her for courageously asserting her ideas in the face of a ‘blatant and intolerant’ public opinion in Italy” (qtd. in Taplin 381). Similarly, Ruskin sent EBB “a message by Mrs. Stowe” to Florence on 7 December 1859 “to the effect, that ‘he did not cease to believe in Louis Napoleon,’” and EBB reported to Arabella that Mrs. Stowe herself stated, “‘I am beginning to believe in him’” (LTA 2: 435). Such differences of opinion suggest that even in England not all literary figures saw EBB’s belief in Napoleon III’s intentions in Italy as “blind,” as Martineau charges.

It may be no accident that the terms Martineau employs to critique EBB’s perspective on Napoleon III—“his present success blinds her,” producing an “aberration”—echo those used in two of the most influential negative reviews of Poems before Congress. One of these, Aytoun’s “Poetic Aberrations” in Blackwood’s, denounces the poet’s portrait of the French Emperor in ways that reflect the “tory” politics of the periodical, as we have indicated above.  The other review, by Henry Fothergill Chorley in the leading English literary periodical the Athenaeum, opens by emphasizing, as Martineau does, EBB’s “blind faith” in Napoleon III:  “Mrs. Browning is in this book authoritatively dithyrambic, blessing or banning as suits an anointed priestess. She is more political than poetical, expressing her blind faith in Napoleon the Third as the hope of Italy, and flinging out a malediction against England” (371, emphasis added).  Unlike most of the reviewers of EBB’s 1860 collection on both sides of the Atlantic, Chorley proceeds to give much less attention to “Mrs. Browning[‘s]” opening “blessing” of  “Napoleon the Third as the hope of Italy” than to her “banning”—that is, her concluding “malediction against England” in “A Curse for a Nation.” As in the case of Aytoun and other reviewers analysed here, however, Chorley’s denunciation of Poems before Congress is shaped by little noted contexts—although in his case, the focus on EBB’s “banning” or cursing of England likely arises from contexts less political than literary and personal.

V. England, America, Both, or Neither?: Controversies over “A Curse for a Nation”

Although Chorley’s review was the first to appear on 17 March 1860, just five days after Poems before Congress was published by Chapman and Hall, it does not figure prominently in the debates over Napoleon III that the collection provoked. In contrast, it plays a central role in setting the pattern for the response to “A Curse for a Nation” and the controversies over its place, as a poem ostensibly about American slavery, in a volume about Italian liberation. Since this is the work in Poems before Congress that has attracted the most attention in recent criticism and since EBB’s exchanges with Chorley over “A Curse for a Nation” in the Athenaeum prolonged the controversies the poem excited, Chorley’s review has also been one of the most widely cited in current scholarship.

After his opening remarks on “Mrs. Browning . . . blessing or banning” and her “blind faith” in Napoleon III, Chorley reiterates this pivotal contrast by describing Poems before Congress as a “pamphlet” that “opens with a pæan to the Emperor of the French, and ends with a curse to England” (371). Yet he does not cite from “Napoleon III in Italy” to illustrate her “pæan.” Instead, he cites the entire “Curse” section of “A Curse for a Nation,” following it with a sweeping condemnation of the poet lost in “the blaze of her own infallibility as regards Italian men and affairs, —French relations, —English abominations, and every grave, intricate question which makes men weigh, wait and suspend the sledge-hammer or—the curse.” Given this indictment, his concession—“For all this, Mrs. Browning is here, as before, a real poetess . . . who has written, in her time, better than the best of English poetesses”—seems less than a back-handed compliment. This is more especially the case because he concludes this sentence and his review by observing that she “proves” her poetical ability by “taking to its extremity the right of ‘insane prophet’ to lose his head,—and to loose his tongue” (372), thereby introducing a motif that recurs in antagonistic reviewers’ comments on EBB’s poetic form (see Section VI). The Brownings as political liberals expected hostile reviews of Poems before Congress from their “natural enemies” in Blackwood’s and the “Saturday Reviler,” as noted above. However, Chorley’s harshness  took them by surprise, leaving RB especially “furious” (FF 318) and prompting EBB to write in a letter to her brother George Barrett, “except for the Athenaeum’s misstatement, I was prepared for everything” (Letters of the Brownings 225).

To some degree, Chorley’s hostile stance might be attributed to his reaction to a woman poet publicly “loosing” her “tongue” about politics. While Chorley had been one of the critics more sympathetic to EBB in reviewing the poetry in the first half of her career, his review of Aurora Leigh in November 1856 marked a shift in his treatment of her, animated in part by his negative reaction to work he described as “a contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation, which Woman is now raising” (1425).[27] Notably, he describes the political militancy of Poems before Congress in gendered terms that also incorporate an oblique reference to Aurora Leigh, remarking of “Mrs. Browning” that “[s]he may not have been born a Thalestris; but as she has of late selected buckler and mail, and (as the Americans say) ‘thrashed into’ the world of polemics, her old friends and admirers can but thank the Gods for her poetry, and leave her politics to those who have stomach for them” (371). Yet, despite Chorley’s comparison of EBB to “Thalestris,” the Queen of the Amazons, the animosity of his attack does not seem to be principally attributable to gender politics. Unlike Aytoun in Blackwood’s, for instance, he does not focus on the taboos violated by a woman cursing her country.

More immediate causes for Chorley’s animosity emerge when his review is placed in the personal and literary contexts of his prior conflict with EBB over his romance Roccabella: A Tale of a Woman’s Life (1859), published under the pseudonym “Paul Bell.” Despite his relatively negative review of the stylistic mingling in EBB’s novel-epic in the Athenaeum in 1856, less than three years later Chorley dedicated Roccabella to “the Author of ‘Aurora Leigh,’” saluting EBB as “the most distinguished of women gifted for poetical authorship whom England has ever produced” (iii, v). When he sent her a copy, she wrote to thank him “affectionately” but made “some observations which did not please him,” as she confided to Arabella (LTA 2: 462). In the letter in question, dated 25 November 1859, she opened by thanking Chorley “with all [her] heart,” then facetiously suggested that his dedication to her might be “a covert lecture, or sarcasm, who knows?” but described herself as “honoured and pleased and grateful all the same.” The bulk of her letter, however, focuses not on his “very clever book,” or its “incisively given” characters, or its “half truths everywhere” but on the “main fault of the book”: its representation of Italian patriots as, in her words, “princess and patriots admirably cut out (and up!).” “Under all the ridiculousness, under all the wickedness even of such men and women, lies a cause,” she insisted, observing that she found “no notion of this” even in Chorley’s “best” characters. “You evidently think that God made only the English” and that “[t]ruth, generosity, nobleness of will and mind … do not exist beyond the influence of the ‘Times’ newspaper and the ‘Saturday Review,’” she further remarked, then reiterated her dissent: “Well, I have lived thirteen years on the Continent, and, far as England is from Italy . . .  I dissent from you, dissent from you, dissent from you” (LEBB 2: 350-51). After this pungent criticism, she struck a more harmonious note, emphasizing the “true pleasure (in spite of all this fault-finding)” that the Brownings had experienced in “feeling ourselves close to you in your book” (LEBB 2: 352). Her truthful, if somewhat tactless, response seems to have incensed Chorley, who appears to have taken her rebuke personally, instead of as a statement of their differences over patriots in the Italian “cause.”

As newly published letters to Isa indicate, EBB’s “fault-finding” led to what RB described as a “bitter, foolish letter” from Chorley which she chose to leave “unanswered” (FF 316). More importantly, however, he also wrote to others at this time indicating how he had taken his revenge for EBB’s criticisms of his Italian “romance”:  “Think of Mr. Chorley’s having just written to Miss Cushman, to this effect, ‘that he had received a most sarcastic letter from Mrs. Browning, about ‘Roccabella,’ & had given her a review on her ‘Poems before Congress’ which would not please her,” EBB remarked to Isa on 2 April 1870 (FF 321). When Chorley’s condemnation of EBB’s “blessing” and “banning” and her “infallible, arrogant” stance in Poems before Congress is placed in the context of her sharp criticisms of his Anglocentrism in Roccabella, his reasons for focusing primarily on her “curse to England” rather than her treatment of Italy or Napoleon III become more apparent. In effect, he seems to have mingled her “malediction” on England with her sharp criticisms of his own novel—when he may have expected his dedication to lead to her artistic “blessing.”

Although Robert interpreted the vituperative tone of Chorley’s review as “a complex piece of malignity,” EBB herself eventually wrote to “forgive him,” after “rifle-firing” on both sides (LTA 2: 462). The “rifle-firing” was not over her “pæan to the Emperor of the French” but over his interpretation of “A Curse for a Nation” as directed to England: a spill-over from the Roccabella personal conflict that had more lasting consequences. Much to EBB’s chagrin, the Athenaeum’s reading set the trend for much of the British press: of the reviews published in the month of March, those in the Critic, the Atlas, the Examiner, the Daily News, and the Spectator all described the poem as addressing England, whereas only Bowen’s scathing report in the Saturday Review understood the curse as directed at the United States. The interpretive approach led by the Athenaeum persisted in reviews published later that year such as those in the Globe and Traveller, Chambers’s Journal and the Spiritual Magazine.

After the Athenaeum’s review was first printed, EBB wrote to Chorley, in the hope of correcting his “mis-statement” (LEBB 2: 367). Although the journal published an amendment that included a small part of her letter on 7 April 1860 (“Our Weekly Gossip”), the Athenaeum’s note raised more problems than it solved:

Mrs. E.B. Browning wishes us to state that the verses in her “Poems before Congress,” entitled “A Curse for a Nation,” are leveled—not against England, as is generally thought—but against the United States; not on account, she now tells us, of any remissness on the Italian Question, but on account of the Negro Question. Every English reader of Mrs. Browning will rejoice in this assurance. We may be allowed to ask, in extenuation of our own hasty and incorrect inference, —why a rhyme on Negro Slavery should appear among “Poems before Congress”? (477)

Not surprisingly, EBB took issue with the wording of this amendment, as did RB, who privately protested in a letter to Isa, “the critic leaves out the introduction, every stanza of which contains evidence plain as noonday that the nation referred to is America. Look at the first part of the poem . . . and tell me if such a blunder is possible to anybody, honestly reading it, and not an idiot” (FF 316). The attention to specific lines that Browning advocates would have to wait, however, until the September 1860 review in Weldon’s Register, wherein the anonymous critic quotes extensively from the Prologue to show the “grievous injustice” served EBB by those who misidentified the nation as England (22).

In the interim, EBB wrote to Chorley again on 13 April 1860, objecting to his “loose paragraph” in “Our Weekly Gossip” that made the situation appear as if she had made the statement “arbitrarily (perhaps from fright) . . . and as if the intention of [the poem] could be ‘generally thought’ what the Athenaeum critic took it to be, except by following his lead or adopting his process of a general skipping of half the said poem” (LEBB 2: 378). Chorley then evidently wrote to explain that the correction in the Athenaeum was not his doing, telling her he had suffered “[g]reater pain” from the incident “than from any event in his literary life” (LTA 2: 462-3). EBB replied with a more conciliatory letter in turn, explaining to Chorley on 2 May that she had been particularly “vex[ed],” because the Athenaeum note “made me look ungenerous, cowardly, mean—as if, in haste to escape from the dogs of England, I threw them the good name of America” (LEBB 2: 380). Her response, on the one hand, understandably reflects her objection to Chorley’s seeming disregard for the lines stating that the curse is directed “over the Western Sea” (l. 4, l. 52). On the other hand, her letter does not address the lingering question about why the poem was included in a volume otherwise focused on Italian independence, nor does it acknowledge that this context invites an interpretation different from the clear abolitionist message of the Liberty Bell.

In fact, EBB admitted the prospect of such an alternative reading in a letter to Isa, conceding on 2 April 1860 that “certain stanzas” of the poem “do ‘fit’ England ‘as if they were made for her’” (FF 321). Even if EBB did not intend to make the curse seem directed at England, she significantly revised the poem for its inclusion in Poems before Congress. Among her changes were the addition of a quatrain to the Prologue wherein the speaker expresses her grief for the “patriot virtue starved to vice on / Self-praise, self-interest, and suspicion” (ll. 27-28) she sees as one of “[her] own land’s sins” (l. 19). Insofar as these lines recall EBB’s statement in the Preface to Poems before Congress “if patriotism be a virtue indeed, it cannot mean an exclusive devotion to one’s country’s interests,” they heighten the unity of the collection and thus connect “A Curse for a Nation” to other poems in Poems before Congress (WEBB 4: 553).

Whatever the particular nation or nations on view, EBB was offended by the marked nationalism evident in the British reception to this poem, as her letter to Isa of April 2 shows:

If, indeed, I had gone abroad & cursed other peoples [sic] lands, there would have been no objection. That poem, as addressed to America, has always been considered rather an amiable & domestic trait on my part—But England! Heavens & earth, what a crime! The very suspicion of it, is guilt. (FF 321)

These remarks underscore the disparity between the reception of “A Curse for a Nation” when it appeared  in the Liberty Bell as opposed to when it was included in Poems before Congress, further reflecting the sharp contrast between British and American responses to the poem. In 1856 in the United States, “A Curse for a Nation” was celebrated by the abolitionist Liberator as “singularly felicitous, delicate and unique, and well worth the price of the [Liberty Bell] volume” (“Notice,” 11 January 1856, 2). Moreover, the poem was reprinted in both the Liberator (4 January 1856) and— despite the fierceness of its curses—in the Happy Home and Parlor Magazine (1 December 1856). The poem met with similarly welcoming responses from reviewers of Napoleon III in Italy writing for the National Quarterly Review and the New York Times (see below). Contrariwise, following Chorley’s lead in the Athenaeum, the British press raised a widespread complaint against EBB for allegedly cursing “her own country” (the Critic 362; the Atlas 232; Fraser’s Magazine 822; the Spiritual Magazine 294).

Many British critics objected also to the fact that EBB, as a woman, wrote about international affairs. This intersection of national and gender politics shows itself in many of the reviews and results in differing responses to the representation of a woman cursing, whether the curse is understood as directed at England or America. On the one hand, some reviewers emphasize the shocking power of the curse: thus Howitt terms it “dire” in the Spiritual Magazine and the anonymous reviewer in the Critic states that the curse “is so extraordinary in the violence of its tone and curious bitterness of spirit, that we cannot avoid quoting it” (362). On the other hand, the reviews in the Spectator and Blackwood’s minimize and dismiss the curse’s power by describing it in terms that relegate it to a narrow, feminine  sphere. The Spectator, for instance, derisively calls the poem “a woman’s mania” that has “gone so far as to overrule not only natural instincts, but good taste” (309).

Of all the reviews, Aytoun’s piece for Blackwood’s treats the issue of a woman’s political cursing at the greatest length, in a review that not only reflects this periodical’s Conservative approach to liberalism and universal suffrage but also intertwines nationalist, gendered, and religious concerns. Aytoun begins by asserting that “for the peace and welfare of society, it is a good and wholesome rule that women should not interfere with politics” (490). With respect to “A Curse for a Nation,” he objects both to EBB’s position as a woman writing about politics and to the rhetorical device of the dialogue with the angel used in the poem’s Prologue:

We are always sorry to be under the necessity of contradicting a lady, but we are decidedly of the opinion that no angel desired the gifted authoress to do anything of the kind. The communication came directly from a pernicious little imp who had been turned out of Pandemonium for profanity. Angels, we firmly believe, have a decided objection to all kinds of cursing and swearing; and had Mrs. Browning’s good angel been beside her when she penned this very objectionable production, we do think he would have entered his most solemn protest against its publication. (494)

Aytoun’s restrictive views regarding gender roles surface once again when he states, “To bless and not to curse is a woman’s function; and if Mrs. Browning, in her calmer moments, will but contrast the spirit which has prompted her to such melancholy aberrations with that which animated Florence Nightingale, she can hardly fail to derive a profitable lesson for the future” (494). Ultimately, he concludes by describing the curse in more conventionally feminine terms: “We are glad, however, to be able to state that Mrs. Browning does not shine in imprecation. She merely scolds, and that neither forcibly nor coherently, which is a great comfort to us, because we should be sorry to see our poetess transformed into a poissarde” (494).[28]

Even some of the more favourable British reviews of Poems before Congress work to diminish the power of the curse as Aytoun does in Blackwood’s, though with differing motives. The Daily News, for instance, calls “A Curse for a Nation” a “little indiscretion” because “it is unpleasant to hear a lady even ‘making believe’ to curse her own country” (232). The reviewer continues, “It is nothing more than ‘make-believe’; for this so-called ‘Curse’ is simply a sorrowful rebuke to England for not extending her sympathies to other lands” (232). Like the Daily News critic, Ollier in the Atlas presents the curse as more harmless than ferocious: “In other words, she scolds us rather sharply; but it is the privilege of a lady to make rebuke itself one of the forms of love” (2). The reviewer for the John Bull places less emphasis on gendered assumptions and more on the text of the poem itself in noting the “harmless character of this malediction,” which, as he puts it, simply condemns the nation to what it “deliberately chooses to do” (219). In essence, this reading accords with EBB’s own private statement about “A Curse for a Nation”: “In fact, I cursed neither England nor America . . . the poem only pointed out how the curse was involved in the action of slave-holding” (FF 318). At the same time, her reference to “slave-holding” underscores the poem’s primary reference to America, not England.

American responses to “A Curse for a Nation” as printed in Napoleon III in Italy show more attention to the nuances of the speech act portrayed in the poem than British reviews do—despite exceptions, like the unspecified “American journal” described by EBB that “moralizes” about “how “one forgets one’s Maker, falls into the hands of the devil, & so takes to writing poems in favor of the liberation of Italy . . . . & American slaves!!” (LTA 2: 470).[29] Other American responses to “A Curse for a Nation” in 1860, however, reflect the “generous” response of the American people she noted in reference to the New-York Times and the New York Independent specifically (see Section IV and FF 334). For example, the critic for the National Quarterly Review in New York observes of the curse in the poem, “there are few, if any, of Mrs. Browning’s denunciations in which there is so little bitterness. It is evident that her indignation was not at its full height when she wrote it” (196). The reviewer’s comparative analysis effectively situates “A Curse for a Nation” in relation to earlier poems by EBB that feature cursing—such as “The Cry of the Children” (1844) and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (1848)—and underscores the relative hesitation of the speaker in “A Curse for a Nation” to offer a malediction. The New York Times reviewer engages even more closely with the central speech act in “A Curse for a Nation.” Quoting from the opening stanzas in which the speaker expresses her reservations about sending the curse, the critic observes that “Mrs. Browning’s appeal is made in no Pharisaic temper. Her warning and entreaty come from one who may loyally say ‘My heart is sore / For my own land’s sins’” (2). Notably, this review takes a different approach than the Spectator, Blackwood’s, the Daily News, or the Atlas regarding nationalist ideologies and gender politics. It affirms the volume as not “womanish”—in the sense of having a “lachrymose and egotistical quality—but “womanly, after the fashion of England’s Elizabeth” (2). Developing this claim, the reviewer attributes to EBB a “combined fervour of heart and brain” that “sets [her] apart among our singers” (2). This attention to EBB’s combination of affect and intellect assigns her an androgynous voice that contrasts with the sentimentality conventionally ascribed to female poets. Furthermore, the reviewer’s comments esteem the artistry of Poems before Congress, recognizing the poetry not as a shriek—the word the critic for the London Quarterly Review later used in reference to  it (393)—but as a song.

VI. From Shriek to Song: Poetic Form and Other Works in Poems before Congress

Variously described as a shriek, a song, or some strange blend of both, Poems before Congress encountered even more widely diverging responses to its formal qualities than to its politics. Indeed, several readers asserted that the volume should not be regarded as poetry at all, objecting that its political emphases made it utterly prosaic. The relationship between the poetry’s form and its controversial content, then, was itself a hotly debated issue: while some reviewers praised or censured poetry and politics together, others sought to separate the two. Furthermore, even  the praise garnered by EBB’s poetry varies significantly—ranging from the “rhythmic melody” celebrated by the John Bull (219) to the “tangle of wild and beautiful” appreciated by the Daily News (2). For all these inconsistencies and contradictions, however, reviews of Poems before Congress demonstrate that even apparently disinterested aesthetic judgements often bespeak underlying ideological biases, not only in the cases of “Napoleon III in Italy” and “A Curse for a Nation” but also those of the other poems in the collection.

This combination of aesthetics and ideology reveals itself most tellingly in Aytoun’s review for Blackwood’s. His title “Poetic Aberrations” ostensibly focuses the review on questions of poetic form. Yet the politicized contexts of the judgements made—both in the review itself and in the issue it appears in—belie the guise of aesthetic neutrality, as does his opening attack on women “addict[ed] to cosmopolitan and liberal politics” (see the discussion of Blackwood’s in sections IV and V). This politicized attack frames his entire treatment of Poems before Congress, which he introduces as an “appropriate text” to illustrate his opening general “remarks”:

We have just received a thin volume of verses—for we cannot call them poems—by one whom we are proud otherwise to style as a real poetess, and to whose high merit we have before now borne most willing testimony—Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and very sincerely do we regret, for her sake, that she has fallen into the error of publishing anything so ineffably bad, if we regard it as poetical composition—so strangely blind, if we look upon it as a political confession of faith—or so utterly unfair to England and English feeling, as has been penned by one of England’s most gifted daughters. (490)

As the review progresses, Aytoun’s critical terms intensify. Whereas he first asserts that EBB’s compositions are merely “verses” but not “poems,” he later speculates that “this sort of composition” might be too poor to be considered “even verse” (492). His censure culminates with his comparison of EBB to the Pythoness of classical mythology (echoing Bowen in the Saturday Review, as noted in Section IV above) and his claim that she “has been seized with a like fit of insanity” (492).

Among the reviews from the British press, variations on this theme of “insanity” occur frequently, beginning with Chorley’s comparison of EBB in the Athenaeum to an “insane prophet” with a loosened “tongue” (372). Like Chorley and Aytoun, the reviewer for the Spectator (31 March 1860) suggests that Poems before Congress resembles the rantings of a crazed prophet, thus implying not only madness but also formlessness:

If we were to judge by the testimony of this volume alone, we might suppose that Mrs. Browning considered poetical inspiration to consist, as it has been vulgarly supposed to consist, in some species of insanity; so that, like the priestesses of the ancient false faiths, she has become ‘rapt’ and is in a state to be incapable of applying rules. (309)

The vehemence evident in the Spectator critic’s hyperbolic assertion that EBB “is in a state to be incapable of applying rules” persists throughout the entire review, which opens by calling Poems before Congress “sixty-five pages that should never have been printed” (309). Anticipating Aytoun’s demotion of the collection from poetry to verse to something less than verse, the reviewer cites the opening ode to Napoleon at length, disregarding the poem’s lineation and instead printing the lines “‘running on,’ as poetry has been written by the ancient bards” so as to show “how prosaic it is in actual construction” (309).

While the reviews in Blackwood’s and the Spectator thus debar Poems before Congress from the status of poetry, Bowen’s essay in the Saturday Review suggests that it is only the guise of poetic form that makes possible EBB’s political licenses. Bowen begins, “The serious prosaic utterance of almost any proposition which has been paraphrased into Mrs. Browning’s poetical rhapsody would be culpable, pitiable or silly” (402). As poetry, however, Poems before Congress enjoys the “long-established convention” wherein metre holds “a privilege of irresponsibility,” one which Bowen says is often abused by poets, pointing to Byron as an example (402). Yet even as his opinion on poetry versus prose differs from that of Aytoun and of the Spectator critic, Bowen nevertheless takes a similar line regarding EBB’s poetic “insanity,” terming the words of the “Pythoness” who utters “A Curse for a Nation” a “delirium of imbecile one-sidedness” spoken by a “denationalized fanatic” (403).

The intersection of poetry and politics in Poems before Congress remains a central issue for the critics for the Examiner and Fraser’s Magazine. In these cases, however, inconsistencies emerge within each reviewer’s own views. The Examiner’s report briefly repudiates the politics of EBB’s portrayal of Louis Napoleon and her curse on “this nation that drew no sword for Italy” before proceeding to focus exclusively on aesthetic issues, critiquing her “scorn of orthodoxy in the formation of rhymes” (181). Among the most egregious of EBB’s “[b]ad rhymes,” the reviewer lists, “Passion and domination, beauties and a foot is, Modena and God in a, schooner and oppugn or, [and] vice on and suspicion” (181). Nevertheless, the Examiner asserts that EBB is “really able . . . to put high thought into enduring words” and concludes by affirming her “contributions to the literature of her country” (181). Similar tensions emerge in Skelton’s more negative review for Fraser’s Magazine. “A Raid among the Rhymers,” like Aytoun’s “Poetic Abberations,” seemingly foregrounds the question of poetic form. As in Aytoun’s case, however, Skelton’s aesthetic judgements remain tied to his political convictions.

The contradictions this submerged connection produces emerge in Skelton’s arguments about the relationship between poetry and politics. He begins by suggesting that politics may well be an appropriate subject for poetry—“We can see no reason why the minstrel should not be permitted to touch the political controversies which agitate his contemporaries” (818). Nevertheless, he later separates poetry and politics, asserting, “Mrs. Browning’s book being intended for a political manifesto, it is perhaps unnecessary to add that as poetry it is a complete failure” (823).  Skelton continues, “on the whole, the poetry is the weakest, the most inchoate, most unmusical, and most ineffective that we have met with for a long time” (823). For all these superlative claims, however, he begrudgingly admits that “An August Voice” is “bitter and powerful,” even as he objects to the poem’s portrayal of Napoleon in asserting that his recommending the Tuscans to “take back their Grand-Duke” is “the very apotheosis of bad faith” (823). Not only does his assertion miss the layered ironies that EBB portrayed in Napoleon’s speech and hinted at in joking to Isa about the poem’s representation of “the imperial policy in Tuscan—You know I have not the pretention . . .  of ‘never being sarcastic’” (FF 283); Skelton’s objections to the poem are also based entirely on political rather than poetical grounds.

That the contradictions in Skelton’s claims about poetry and politics surface in his discussion of “An August Voice” is perhaps unsurprising, in light of the contradictory readings that this dramatic monologue produced among EBB’s reviewers. The John Bull critic read “An August Voice” as tempering EBB’s enthusiasm for Napoleon—so much so that the poem presents “Napoleon as playing the part of the blackest treachery” and, furthermore, that “[h]is worst enemies could do no more than to accept Mrs. Browning’s interpretation of his views” (218). For his own part, the reviewer claims, “We should be very sorry to have so vile an opinion of Napoleon as to believe that Mrs. Browning has given anything like a true interpretation of the voce augusta to which she refers” (218). He goes on to suggest that it was not the “Grand Duke” who “broke faith in 1848” but those who “clamoured for a constitution” (219). Taking a much more cynical view of the French Emperor’s Villafranca treaty, Bowen in the Saturday Review observes that Napoleon in the poem “appeals to the Tuscans not to take back the Grand Duke, whom the same divine organ had promised to Austria to restore” (403-4). Bowen seems to have a greater appreciation of EBB’s “sarcasm” in further suggesting that in “An August Voice” EBB’s defence of Napoleon is based “on two somewhat incompatible assumptions”: she depicts both “the Imperial hero as withdrawing into his own conscious greatness of which the world was not worth” and the “virtue of cunning” associated with the “worshippers of force” (403). For the Morning Post reviewer, however, “An August Voice” is not an inconsistent defence of Napoleon III, but “an ironical appeal to the Tuscans to ‘take back their Grand Duke,’” full of “point, spirit, and humour” (3).

“An August Voice” is one exception, along with “A Court Lady” and “The Dance,” (see below) to the Morning Post’s largely negative assessment of both the politics and the poetics of Poems before Congress. According to this periodical, the volume illustrates the perils of a poet “meddl[ing] with politics,” especially a woman poet. “Even Tennyson’s individual withers are not quite unwrung on this point” and “Mrs. Browning is entirely flown away with the resonant steam eagles of her Italian sympathies,” the reviewer comments. The “resonant steam eagles” alludes to an image for locomotive engine vapour in ll. 9-11 of the 1844 text of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.”[30] The Morning Post also describes “Napoleon III in Italy” as a “very long series of unrhythmical verses.” Overall, its reviewer finds the book “not unacceptable, though beneath Mrs. Browning’s mark even in its beauties! We are grateful for the occasional tones of true music, though the greater part be but ‘Sweet bells jangled, harsh, and out of tune’” (3). By citing Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s rantings, the reviewer appears to side with the numerous English critics who associate Poems before Congress with poetic “insanity.” This reviewer finds the “jangled” qualities of EBB’s poems particularly evident in “Italy and the World,” with its “rugged” and “unmelodious” opening stanza beginning with the line “Florence, Bologna, Parma, Modena” (3). Employing similar tactics to other reviewers, he characterizes the poem as “merely very ill-tempered declamation, distorted out of prose, but not elevated into poetry” (3).

Like “An August Voice,” EBB’s “Italy and the World” provoked widely divergent readings. The Morning Post’s forceful criticism of this poem’s versification echoes Chorley’s Athenaeum review, which quotes the same passage in support of the claim that EBB’s poetry shows “not so much of lute as of marrow-bone and cleaver” (371). Chorley compares the “jingl[ing]” rhythm in the opening stanza of “Italy and the World” not to a distorted hybrid of prose and poetry, but to the jingle of an old “Jacobite ballad”—“Ken ye what’s the rhyme to porringer?” (371).  The John Bull reviewer, however, praises the poem’s “rhythmic melody,” likening a parallel stanza in “Italy and the World”—Stanza XIII, beginning “Modena, Parma, Bologna, Florence,” which reverses the order of the cities in the opening stanza—to the ringing of a “silver trumpet” (219). Like the John Bull reviewer, the Atlas and the Daily News praise “Italy and the World” as the “finest” (Atlas 232) and “most finished” (Daily News 2) poem in the volume. These examples indicate that divergent views of this poem’s form arise in conjunction with differing reactions to its transnational politics since these assessments accompany praise for the cosmopolitan vision of “Italy and the World.” Thus, the John Bull celebrates not only the poem’s beauty but also its “grand fraternal community” (219), and, as noted above in Section IV, the Atlas objects to those who will “raise the foolish cry that the authoress is anti-English simply because she is cosmopolitan” (2).

The poems that reviewers—particularly more hostile reviewers—most often single out for praise, including praise of their versification, are “The Dance” and “A Court Lady.” The reviewer for the Critic, for instance, says on the whole, “we like neither the opinions nor the manner in which they are conveyed” yet favours “The Dance” as the “best” in the volume (362). The Globe and Traveller, despite objecting to the “smoky and dim” qualities of the “poetic fire” displayed throughout Poems before Congress finds some passages of “true poetic beauty” in the collection, chief among these being “A Court Lady” (277). The praise attached to these two poems likely reflects their seemingly more conservative position on gender politics, for they depict women not in the provocative role of cursing or publicly lauding a foreign Emperor but in the traditional occupations of dancing, visiting, and nursing. The Morning Post reviewer revealingly lauds the “magical, musical melody” in “A Court Lady” with its “beautifully described” portrayal of a visit by a “dainty lady” to “wounded men” (3), while also singling out “The Dance.” The more unconventional aspects of the roles assumed by the women in these poems, however, go unremarked by the reviewers: those who dance with the French soldiers in the former poem initiate an international alliance, and the title character of “A Court Lady” unites the wounded Italian nationalist soldiers by speaking in favour of their cause. The poetic form of these pieces likewise mixes regularity with an irregularity that the reviewers do not remark: the ABABB quintains of “The Dance” blend trochaic hexameter with iambic pentameter, and the couplet forms of “A Court Lady” include imperfect rhymes.

Despite the prevailing alignment of reviewers’ views on the politics of Poems before Congress with their opinions on its poetic form, some critics praise the poetry even while disagreeing with the politics. This attempted separation of poetry and politics occurs most explicitly in the anonymous review in Chambers’s Journal entitled “The Poetess Abroad.” Quoting from John Ruskin’s comments about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Ode to France,” this critic calls Poems before Congress “[n]oble verse, but erring in thought” (252). The reviewer draws attention to the “uncomfortable and halting metres” of “Italy and the World” but nevertheless ends with a “beautiful extract” from “Napoleon III in Italy,” thereby affirming EBB’s ability to “sing” regardless of her political views. The “extract” he presents—the lament beginning “But Italy, my Italy” (ll. 252-53)— is one praised by other reviewers hostile to or sceptical of EBB’s view of Napoleon as well. In quoting this same apostrophe to Italy, for instance, the Leader and Saturday Analyst praises Poems before Congress as “worthy of [EBB’s] past,” calling the volume “full of beauties,” regardless of the poet’s occasional “carelessness” with rhymes (219). Similarly, the reviewer for the American Liberator takes issue with EBB’s portrayal of Louis Napoleon (see section IV) but nevertheless praises the poetry of Poems before Congress as “crowded with those pictorial delineations, mystical yet pregnant expressions, lofty aspirations, strong imaginings, and deep throbbings of humanity, which characterize Mrs. Browning as the most remarkable poet of the age” (54).

These reviewers were not alone in appreciating the artistry of Poems before Congress independently of political views, as EBB’s correspondence indicates. EBB wrote to Isa about a letter from William Michael Rossetti, which she described as “careless of politics & Italy but exalting the art” and one which “almost puts the volume over [EBB’s] other poems on that ground” (FF 323). She received another letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom she similarly presents as one who “cares nothing for politics, but praises the poetry as being superior to anything [she has] done in the same dimensions” (LTA 2:454).[31] The editor and essayist John Forster likewise wrote to EBB what she described as a “very kind letter” about Poems before Congress, one which “differs about Napoleon” but “praises poetry & preface” (LTA 2:462).

Ollier of the Atlas was even more appreciative, commending the poet not only for her “politics & courage & justice” (FF 323) in praising Napoleon III (see Section IV), but also for the unity of form and content in Poems before Congress: “the verse answers the throbbing of the heart” (232). In Ollier’s words, “[t]he tumultuous hopes and longings newly born, or rather revived, by the Italian war of the last year” find “a noble utterance in these rough, yet in some sort harmonious, verses” (231). The Daily News similarly celebrates the combination of roughness and harmony in Poems before Congress, observing, “These rugged verses, these strange and wilful rhymes, these abrupt transitions of emotion, this crowding of metaphors, this tangle of wild and beautiful, of fierce and tender, of rapturous and denunciatory thoughts, are born of the exaltation of a sustained excitement, and are not to be estimated by the ordinary rules of criticism” (2).  The affirmation of the “rugged verses”  in the Daily News review is  subsequently reiterated by the reviewer for Weldon’s Register: “[t]here is, indeed, a wild, lawless vigour in these poems, and there is a depth of enthusiasm in them which scorns the ordinary bonds of verse, as it withers with tenfold scorn the conventionalities of society” (23).

In America, some reviewers responded even more positively to the “lawless vigour” of Poems before Congress. The New-York Times celebrates EBB’s “clear silver accent of sincere conviction,” remarking that “the intense emphasis which sometimes for a moment flings this conviction out with a half-dissonant sharpness like the angry notes of a challenger’s trumpet is the unconscious emphasis of a proud, pure nature, impatient of the skeptic sloth of others” (4). The American National Quarterly Review similarly finds EBB’s poetry “elemental” and “forceful,” even as it mildly criticizes the metre of the opening ode to Napoleon (194). According to this reviewer, EBB’s “master hand” is most evident in “A Tale of Villafranca,” which this reviewer terms “lively,” “graceful,” and “poetical” (195-96).

As these excerpts attest, the very ruggedness and wildness that some reviewers identified as poetic failures were celebrated by others, particularly insofar as they regarded these stylistic qualities as issuing from EBB’s enthusiasm for and investment in the “Italian question.” Such reviews thus draw near to EBB’s own ideas, as articulated in various letters, about the integration of poetry and politics in Poems before Congress. Writing to seek reconciliation with Chorley on 2 May 1860, EBB defends her right as poet to address political matters: “Artistically, I may have failed in these poems—that is for the critic to consider; but in the choice of their argument I have not failed artistically, I think, or my whole artistic life and understanding have failed” (LEBB 2: 383). As her statement situating Poems before Congress in relation to her “whole artistic life and understanding” indicates, this volume occasioned some of EBB’s most passionate and eloquent defences of poetry. In the same letter to Chorley, she offers her own definition of “art” as “not either all beauty or all use” but, rather, “essential truth that makes its way through beauty into use” (LEBB 2: 383). Her emphasis on truth-telling echoes a previous letter to Arabella, written only a few weeks before the publication of Poems before Congress:

As to my book which is to cost me, you hint, all my readers . . I cannot help it—they must go. If ever I gained a reader worth having, or did any good, as you say, it was by speaking the truth as I saw it—not the popular truth, not the English truth, not any other soul’s truth but just my soul’s truth. (LTA 2: 448)

Her words about writing not to curry favour with others but to satisfy her own sense of what is true directly anticipate a statement made later to Chorley: “if anything written by me has been recognised even by you, the cause is that I have written not to please you or any other critic, but the deepest truth out of my own heart and head” (LEBB 2: 382-83). For EBB, then, the “deepest truth” arises from both “heart” and “head,” reflecting her understanding of art as a fullness that conjoins conventional binaries: not only the engrained dichotomy of poetry and politics that so many of her more conservative reviewers sought to enforce, but also—and more fundamentally—thinking and feeling, ethics and aesthetics, together with the interanimation of the ideal and the practical that transpires as artistic vision “makes its way through beauty into use.”

VII.      Epilogue: Poems before Congress after 1860

The boldness with which EBB spoke “her soul’s truth” in Poems before Congress did not entirely please her readers, but nor did it, as Arabella feared, “cost” her all of them. On the contrary, the readership of this volume was such that her publisher Frederick Chapman suggested that a second edition of Poems before Congress be released. EBB alludes to this possibility in several letters, the first a letter to Arabella of 11 June 1860 in which she reports Chapman’s statement that “people in England universally admired my ‘pluck’ (meaning impudence, I suppose), while they revile my politics” and then adds, “[t]he Poems B.C. are likely to go into a second edition soon” (LTA 2: 466).[32] The wide range of reviewers’ opinions discussed above indicates that Chapman’s claim about a universal consensus on Poems before Congress requires substantial qualification, yet his comment that Poems before Congress sparked as much admiration for the writer’s “pluck” as it did revulsion for her “politics” draws attention to the complexities and contradictions surrounding the volume’s reception and underscores that this reception was not as bleak as it is often represented.

Despite the suggestions of a second edition, the volume never materialized. While EBB continued to publish periodical poetry in the months between Poems before Congress and her death on 29 June 1861, the next volume of her work to appear was the posthumous Last Poems, issued by Chapman and Hall in February 1862 and overseen by RB. Approximately half of these poems focus on the “Italian question” following a structure set down by EBB before her death, analysed most fully by Alison Chapman.[33] Woodworth presents compelling evidence from published and unpublished correspondence in 1860-61 that EBB was actively discussing second English and American editions of Poems before Congress incorporating new poems on Italian subjects published in American periodicals.[34] With the addition of these new poems to a second edition, EBB possibly envisioned the kind of two-part structure she employed in Casa Guidi Windows to represent successive phases in the war for Italian liberation and unification. Outlining possible tables of content for such an expanded second edition, Woodworth notes that publishing such an edition now would contribute to critical understanding of “the role that European politics played in EBB’s life and the impact that it had on her later poetry” (283).

A posthumous second edition might furthermore redirect attention to the more appreciative readership that invited such a collection, underscore the compounded nature of the events attending the publication of Poems before Congress, and thus complicate the myth that this volume caused EBB’s reputation to decline. Arinshtein’s influential article, noted above (see Section 1), presents this myth in a particularly reductive form: “After the scandal of Poems before Congress it became almost impossible for Mrs. Browning to publish anything in England” (41). In light of EBB’s death in 1861 and the many editions of EBB’s collected and selected poems that followed, this assertion seems like an overstatement, to say the least.[35] Arinstein also overlooks a principal reason why EBB began publishing more poems in American periodicals: the large sums of money offered by the New York Independent. Indeed, the Independent offered EBB sums of twice the value that William Makepeace Thackeray’s Cornhill Magazine paid.[36]

Admittedly, many of the obituaries and retrospective essays published in England during the months following EBB’s death support the claim that Poems before Congress detracted from her reputation. Among the most condemnatory are those in Blackwood’s, the Saturday Review, the Edinburgh Review, the British Quarterly Review, and the London Review. The Saturday Review obituary, for instance, reprinted in America in Littel’s Living Age, remarks that “Mrs. Browning’s last poem incurred general censure for its negation of patriotism and its utter injustice” and continues to attribute her “ill-judged dithyrambics on the war of 1859” to “foreign life,” the “alienation of thought” from English life, and “[t]he partiality and personal bias which affect the ordinary judgments of women,” making “their meddling with political questions inexpedient” (491 as rpt. in Littel’s). Likewise, William Stigand’s retrospective discussion of Poems (4th ed.), Aurora Leigh, and Poems before Congress in the Edinburgh Review maintains that EBB’s last volume “astonished even her admirers” by the “exaggerated tone” with which it praises Louis Napoleon, rebukes England, and curses the United States (532). Although William Henry Smith’s essay for the British Quarterly Review offers much more praise of numerous works by EBB, he characterizes her work as “a poetry of which one half one admires very much, and the other half one just as unhesitatingly disapproves,” clearly placing Poems before Congress in the latter category. This disapproval seems to be dictated by politics, to a considerable degree: Smith criticizes the volume’s ambiguous title, its “laudation of Louis Napoleon,” and its style—deemed “a lamentable rant” (378, 380). Such criticisms emerge once again in the London Review’s essay on Last Poems, published in April 1862, which alludes to “the unpleasant impression left by Poems before Congress,” maintaining that it “deifies the liberators of Italy” with an “enthusiasm” that is “inferior in melody” to her other verse (377).

Other obituaries in British periodicals speak in more moderate terms of Poems before Congress. In his Athenaeum obituary, Chorley—having reconciled with EBB after the conflict occasioned by her response to his novel Roccabella and his attack on her in return—limits himself to stating, “Of Mrs. Browning’s last work, ‘Poems before Congress,’ enough has been said.  By the verses in it her memory will neither live nor die” (20). In a brief notice of EBB’s death printed 10 July 1861, the Guardian praises Aurora Leigh as “the crowning stone on the edifice of her fame” but vaguely dismisses Poems before Congress as “generally felt to be unworthy of her” (659). An anonymous writer for the activist English Woman’s Journal briefly criticizes both the artistic form and the politics of EBB’s last volume in an essay focused primarily on the poet’s personal life. Regarding Poems before Congress and its portrayal of Napoleon III, the writer concludes, “we can but deplore what we feel a mistaken belief, and fear that the noble purpose in which she trusted was but the fruit of her own noble imagination and earnest desire” (376). Nevertheless, the writer speaks appreciatively of EBB’s “deep sympathy” for the Italian people and her “passionate aspiration for their speedy deliverance” (372). The Spectator obituary, reprinted in America in Littel’s Living Age immediately before the harsher Saturday Review essay, similarly emphasizes her “sympathy with Italy . . .  so deep and true that it led her even into the extravagance of addressing a hymn to the present emperor of the French.”  While “English spectators were not able to share this enthusiasm,” the writer adds, “Mrs. Browning’s view was perhaps not much more false on one side, than the common anti-Napoleonic hypothesis in England on the other” (490 as rpt. in Littel’s).

Across the Atlantic, George William Curtis’s brief obituary notice for Harper’s Monthly reflected the generally more positive American reception of EBB’s works on the “Italian question,” as he elegiacally exclaims that her death had changed “Italy and Europe to how many!” (556). On the whole, American obituaries and retrospectives tended to follow Curtis’s lead. Tilton, the editor of the New York Independent who had eagerly solicited more poems from EBB on the “Italian question” after her collection on the second Italian war for liberation appeared, published a memorial essay highlighting the poignancy of EBB’s death and the prescience of her political poetry in purple prose:

Night was on the nation. But the poetess was prophetess. In her new home, she sat and watched for the day’s dawn through Casa Guidi Windows. It waited long, but dawned at last, and she saw it—and then died! Is there not more than a sick-bed meaning in the brief story of the telegraph that she expired just “after day-break?” For the dream of her life—a free and unified Italy—was at last fulfilled in Napoleon’s formal and final recognition of Italian freedom and unity, in the very week she died. (369)

His highly sentimentalized account of the timing of EBB’s death aligns with the phrasing employed by Susanna V. Aldrich in a piece for Arthur’s Home Magazine a few months later, wherein Aldrich says that EBB’s “eyes closed themselves just as the fair Italian morning had laid in the east the first foundations of the new day” (200). Tilton expands on his claim that EBB’s work is visionary, forecasting that Poems before Congress will soon be seen in a new  light: “That little volume of Napoleonic poems turns out more prophetic than men could then believe, who read and shook their heads” (369).

Kate Field’s eulogy in the Atlantic Monthly praises the poetic and political project of Poems before Congress in terms akin to Tilton’s, lauding the “moral courage” of EBB in publishing this collection “at a time when England was most suspicious of Napoleon” (371). “Bravely did she bear up against the angry criticism excited by such anti-English sentiment,” Field comments, contrasting the “cold neutrality” of England in the Italian cause with the “generous aid” of France and further observing that the poet’s “disciples are increasing”: “soon ‘Napoleon III in Italy’ will be read with the admiration which it deserves” (371). Like Tilton, she notes the timing of EBB’s death, though in a rather different way, observing, “It is strange that Cavour and Mrs. Browning should have died in the same month, within twenty-three days of each other,—the one the head, the other the heart of Italy” (375). A more qualified assessment of Poems before Congress appeared in Isaphene M. Luyster’s retrospective essay for the Christian Examiner in January 1862, yet this essay nevertheless remains more appreciative  than many of those published in Britain. Although Luyster says that EBB’s portrayal of Napoleon invites “censure,” she acknowledges that “posterity may yet assent more fully than we think to the poet’s judgement” (84), thus differing from the condemnatory sentences  pronounced by several British periodicals on the poet’s praise of the French emperor.

In Italy, the transnational legacy of EBB’s work was celebrated by the setting up of a memorial tablet in 1861 on the walls of the Brownings’ home in Casa Guidi, featuring lines composed by the poet Niccolò Tommaseo. On behalf of a “Firenza grata” (grateful Florence), Tommaseo commemorates EBB as a poet who “fece del suo versu areo anello / Fra Itallia e Inghilterra” (made of her verse a golden ring between England and Italy).[37] EBB’s poetic joining of England and Italy received brief consideration also by Enrico Nencioni in an essay on EBB for Nuova Antologia di Scienze, Lettre, ed Arti (May 1884), though Nencioni discusses Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh rather generally and does not mention Poems before Congress. His essay thus exemplifies what Leigh Corral Harris finds typical of nineteenth-century Italian responses to EBB, which on the whole neglect to give close attention to her political poetry even while upholding her as an inspirational figure (123-25). The political weight of EBB’s work on the Italian question garnered somewhat greater recognition from Oscar Wilde, who in 1888 affirmed the Anglo-Italian inheritance EBB both took up and bequeathed: she lived “not alone in the heart of Shakespeare’s England, but in the heart of Dante’s Italy,” where her “human passion for Liberty” contributed, if only “to some extent,” to “bringing about that unity of Italy that was Dante’s dream” (742-43). The connection that Wilde acknowledged between EBB’s poetry and political events thus echoes several American obituaries and retrospective essays—such as Tilton’s in the Independent and Field’s in the Atlantic Monthly—in emphasizing the poet’s connection to the Italian cause.

Photograph of Italian Memorial Inscription Over Casa Guidi

Figure 3: Photograph of Italian Memorial Inscription Over Casa Guidi

The thoroughgoing reappraisal of Poems before Congress that Tilton and Field had predicted, however, did not occur as expected. As Tricia Lootens notes, the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw an attempted canonization of EBB as a sainted epitome of Victorian womanhood or, in Lootens’s words, as “a popular counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s notorious ‘Angel in the House’” (2). Needless to say, this portrayal could not be easily squared with the poetic and political boldness of Poems before Congress. In her discussion of the ironic process by which EBB was simultaneously erased and canonized, Lootens observes that the reviews and retrospectives following EBB’s death initiate a longstanding attempt to replace the prophetic poetess of Poems before Congress with a much more conventional, conservative, and domestic figure. By the early twentieth century, this figure was chiefly recognized as the handmaiden to RB’s genius, as Stone demonstrates (1995, pp. 193-228), or alternatively transformed into the “madwoman in the basement” of the mansion of literature, to use Simon Avery’s apt turn on Virginia Woolf’s famous words (2004, p. xxiii). Edmund Gosse’s statement in A Short History of Early Modern Literature (1897) exemplifies the latter transformation, in suggesting of EBB that readers “easily forgive the slipshod execution, the hysterical violence, the Pythian vagueness and the Pythian shriek” (qtd. Lootens 338): a replay of the metaphor first introduced in the Saturday Review’s “reviling” of Aurora Leigh, and echoed in Aytoun’s “Poetic Aberrations.”

Although this effort to silence or distort EBB’s political voice remained dominant, a few nineteenth-century voices departed from this trend. In addition to the praise from Wilde discussed above, Bayne’s 1881 assessment of EBB’s portrayal of Napoleon strikes a remarkably affirming  note. Commenting on “Napoleon III,” Bayne says that though “one now reads [the poem] with mixed feelings,” it nevertheless “has proved a true prophecy in recognising the expedition of the French Emperor as the beginning of a new era for Italy” (98). While declaring his own ardent support for the French Republic, Bayne adds, “the enormous majorities by which the French people first called Napoleon III. to the Presidency, and then confirmed him on the throne, ought not to be swept from the historical memory. It is well that Mrs. Browning has put them on record” (99). Further praise for EBB, as Chapman observes, was sounded by Emily Dickinson, who composed her elegies for the poet upon reading Field’s obituary essay and celebrated EBB’s legacy in ways that foreground her engagement with the Italian question (Networking the Nation 226).[38]

On the whole, however, the patterns that Lootens describes were influential for more than a century following EBB’s death—so much so that what scholarly discussion of Poems before Congress occurred through much of the twentieth century frequently diminished EBB’s political stance. For example, David J. DeLaura’s 1966 publication in Victorian Poetry of RB’s letter to Paoloa E. Giudici regarding “A Curse for a Nation” sparked attention to this poem by both Arinshtein (1969) and Robert W. Gladish (1969). Yet all of these studies represent RB as having a stronger and more assertive stance than EBB regarding the inclusion of “A Curse for a Nation” in Poems before Congress, effectively making her into a mere “handmaiden” once more. With the feminist recovery of EBB’s poetry in the 1980s, critics  returned in a more thoughtful and rigorous way to EBB’s work on the Italian question. In her landmark PMLA essay  “From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Risorgimento,” Sandra M. Gilbert analyzes EBB’s engagement with the struggle for Italian liberation as a re-enactment of her own political struggle, though Gilbert’s largely biographic and psychoanalytic approach focuses on Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh rather than  Poems before Congress. Mermin gives more attention to Poems before Congress and its artistry, noting the “finely varied tone and meter” in “Napoleon III in Italy” and in the case of “Italy and the World” remarking that the “meter and swiftness, the antithesis, repetition and parallelism, the sonorously elemental vocabulary, and the incantatory, prophetic tone” sound “astonishingly like Swinburne” (231-32). In “Cursing as One of the Fine Arts,” Stone analyses the “fearful symmetry” of the rhetorical structure in in “A Curse for a Nation,” along with the multiple meanings of the keyword curse and the poem’s thundering refrain (1986; 194-96 in 1999 rpt.)

Within the past fifteen years, both the poetics and the politics of Poems before Congress have attracted renewed attention, as the collection has at last begun to see the reassessment that Field and Tilton long ago predicted. As a brief survey of this scholarship indicates, the recovery of Poems before Congress has in itself generated a series of events, shedding new light on EBB’s oeuvre and her place in literary history. Avery’s discussion of EBB’s poetry on Italy in Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2003), co-authored with Rebecca Stott, underscores the forcefulness of EBB’s writing in Poems before Congress (176-79). Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy (2003), edited by Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler, features contributions from Richard Cronin, Isobel Armstrong, and Chapman focusing on EBB’s engagement with the question of Italian liberation, with particular consideration to Poems before Congress appearing in Chapman’s essay. Examinations of “A Curse for a Nation” by Linda M. Lewis (1998) and Karen Dieleman (2012) direct critical attention to this poem in a manner markedly different from the former emphasis on RB’s role in the poem’s republication, displaying instead the poem’s engagement with and revision of the prophetic sage discourse adopted by many of EBB’s male contemporaries. In an astute 2005 analysis of the dialogical relations connecting the various poems in the collection, Katherine Montwieler explores their interactions between the personal and political, reads the open ode on “Napoleon III” in counterpoint to “An August Voice, and presents Poems before Congress as an orchestrated series of interwoven speech acts: “a carefully wrought poetic articulation of international and gender politics by a sophisticated and knowing mid-nineteenth-century poet” (294).Woodworth’s 2006 article in Victorian Poetry, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Alfred Tennyson on Napoleon III: the Hero-Poet and Carlylean Heroics” and her illuminating dissertation (2007) foreground the political and literary contexts, as well as the formal structure, of Poems before Congress. Further study of EBB’s portrayal of Napoleon occurs in Linda K. Hughes’s Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (2010), which considers “Napoleon III” as a revision of the Pindaric ode and contrasts it with Tennyson’s 1852 “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (50-52). Amid the growing field of cosmopolitanism, Christopher M. Keirstead’s Victorian Poetry, Europe, and the Challenge of Cosmopolitanism (2011) thoughtfully discusses EBB’s “cosmofeminine” (67) model of civic engagement—though with greater emphasis on Casa Guidi Windows, Aurora Leigh, and “Mother and Poet” than Poems before Congress.  And Chapman’s Networking the Nation (2015) illumines EBB’s central role within networks of British, American, and Italian women writers whose shared passion for the Risorgimento helped fire the political boldness of Poems before Congress.

These examples suggest that recent work is returning to EBB’s own description of herself in 1851 as a “citizeness of the world” as it unfolds the manifold ways in which her cosmopolitan conception of citizenship embodies itself in her poetry (LEBB 2: 13). As the critical conversation on Poems before Congress continues to thicken, the emerging picture of the “sensation” the volume created becomes closer to the compounded response that we find in the 1860s reviews if we attend to what RB, in a memorable phrase in The Ring and the Book, terms “[u]proar in the echo” (Book I, l. 834). EBB herself expected such “uproar,” but also hoped for a response sufficiently compounded to match the “pressure” of the events she was witnessing, the “principles” at stake, and the “feelings” she felt compelled to express, to cite her “Preface” once more. Writing to Anna Jameson from Rome on 22 February 1860, she remarked in Byronic terms of her forthcoming “thin slice of a wicked book”: “Say it’s mad, and bad, and sad: but add that somebody did it who meant it, thought it, felt it, throbbed it out with heart and brain, and that she holds it for truth in conscience and not in partisanship” (LEBB 2: 361-62).

Denae Dyck is completing a SSHRC-funded PhD at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, the Victorian sage, and literature and religion in nineteenth-century Britain. Her work has appeared in Christianity and Literature and is forthcoming in ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature.

Marjorie Stone is McCulloch Professor of English at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. She is the author of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1995), co-editor of Literary Couplings (2006), Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems (2009), and Volume Co-Editor for 3 of 5 volumes in The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010). She has also published on Robert Browning, Tennyson, Dickens, Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Frederick Douglass sex trafficking, cultural citizenship, the corporate university, the transatlantic abolitionist movement, and, most recently, on the Anacreontic tradition in the poetry of EBB and Emily Dickinson.

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Dyck, Denae and Marjorie Stone. “The ‘Sensation’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress (1860): Events, Politics, Reception.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

I. Reviews and Retrospectives 

[Aytoun, William Edmonstoune]. “Poetic Aberrations.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 87, no. 534, April 1860, pp. 490-94.

Aldrich, Susanna V. ‘‘Mrs. Browning.’’ Arthur’s Home Magazine, vol. 18, no. 4, Oct. 1861, p. 200. Web. Accessed 1 Sept. 2015.

[Bowen, Charles Synge Christopher]. Rev. of Poems before Congress. Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, vol. 9, 231, 31 March 1860, pp. 402-4.

[Chorley, Henry Fothergill]. Rev. of Aurora Leigh. Athenaeum, no. 1517 November 1856, pp. 1425-27.

—. Rev. of Poems before Congress. Athenaeum, no. 1690, 17 March 1860, pp. 371-72.

—. “Our Weekly Gossip.” Athenaeum, no. 1693, 7 April 1860, pp. 477-78.

—. Athenaeum, no. 1758, 6 July 1861, pp. 19-20.

[Curtis, George William.] “Editor’s Easy Chair.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 23, June-Nov 1861, pp. 554-56.

“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” English Woman’s Journal, vol. 7, August 1861, pp. 369-75.

Field, Kate. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 8, September 1861, pp. 368-76.

“The French Emperor.” The Liberator, 6 April 1860, p. 54. Nineteenth-Century US Newspapers. Web. Accessed 28 Aug. 2015.

Howitt, William. “The Earth-Plane and the Spirit-Plane of Literature.” Spiritual Magazine, vol. 1, no. 7, July 1860, 292-95.

[Luyster, Isaphene M.] “Mrs. Browning.” Christian Examiner, vol. 10, 5 January 1862, pp. 65-88.

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[Ollier, Edmund]. “Mrs. Browning’s New Poems.” Atlas, 24 March 1860, pp. 231-32..

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Accessed 26 August 2015.

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Rev. of Poems before Congress. Morning Post, 14 April 1860, p. 3. 19th-Century British Newspapers. Web. Accessed 28 August 2015.

RUTH. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mr. Howitt.” Spiritual Magazine, vol. 1, no. 9, September 1860, pp. 404-6.

[Skelton, John] Shirley. “A Raid among the Rhymers.” Fraser’s Magazine, vol. 61, no. 366, June 1860, pp. 820-23.

Smith, William Henry. Rev. of Poems 4th ed., Aurora Leigh, and Poems before Congress. British Quarterly Review, 34, October 1861, pp. 350-81.

[Stigand, William]. “The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Edinburgh Review, 114, October 1861, pp. 513-34.

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“A Word for Mrs. Browning.” [Weldon’s] Register of Facts and Occurrences Relating to Literature, the Sciences, and the Arts, Sept. 1860, pp. 20-23.
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Avery, Simon. Lives of Victorian Literary Figures, vol. 1. Pickering and Chatto, 2004.

—. “‘Twixt Church and the Palace of a Florence Street’: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Italy.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott. Longman, 2003. 156-80.

Barnes, Warner. A Bibliography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. University of Texas and

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Craig, Hugh and Antonia Alexis. “Six Authors and the Saturday Review: A Quantitative Analysis.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 48, no. 1, 2015, pp. 67-86.

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—. “‘For Nothing Was Simply One Thing’: The Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘A Curse for a Nation.’” Studies in Browning and His Circle, vol. 20, 1993, pp. 137-44.

Douglas, Roy. Liberals: A History of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic Parties. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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Gladish, Robert W. “Mrs. Browning’s ‘A Curse for a Nation’: Some Further Comments,” Victorian Poetry, vol. 7, 1969, pp. 275-80. Web. Accessed 7 Jan. 2015.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Risorgimento.” PMLA, vol. 99, no. 2, 1984, pp. 194-211. Web. Accessed 16 August 2016.

Harris, Leigh Corral. “From Mythos to Logos: Political Aesthetics and Liminal Poetics in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no. 1, 2000, 109-31. Web. Accessed 4 August 2016.

Hayter, Alethea. Mrs. Browning: A Poet’s Work and Its Setting. Faber and Faber, 1962.

Hinde, Wendy. George Canning. London: Collins, 1973.

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ENDNOTES

[1] The Volume Editor for Volume 4 of WEBB, including Poems before Congress (547-604), is the General Editor Sandra Donaldson, with contributions from other members of the editorial team.

[2] Italian for “resurgence,” but often more loosely translated as “rebirth” or “revival,” the evocative term Risorgimento “denotes the struggle for the liberation of Italian states and their unification as an independent nation, as well as a philosophical and spiritual movement for the renewal of Italian culture, society and thought” (WEBB vol. 2, ed. Stone and Taylor, p. 481). See also Alison Chapman, BRANCH, “On Il Risorgimento.

[3] The  American edition was advertised in the New York Tribune on 30 March 1860 (a Friday) as “ready next week” and subsequently advertised in the Tribune on 4 April 1860 as costing 50 cents (see Barnes 58). The first American review, in the New-York Times, appeared on 4 April 1860.

[4] Cited by Tilton in his foreword to “First News from Villafranca,” published 7 June 1860 in the Independent. See “A New Poem by Mrs. Browning” in Works Cited.

[5] Woodworth participated as an Associate Editor in Volume IV of WEBB. Notably, even Gardiner Taplin in The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1957), presents a fairly balanced assessment of the reviews of Poems before Congress, in striking contrast to his one-sided treatment of the response to Aurora Leigh (see Stone, BRANCH, “The Advent of Aurora Leigh). While Taplin quotes from Blackwood’s and the Saturday Review at length, he also notes that the Daily News and the Atlas offer a much more “generous” and “friendly” response to Poems before Congress (380). The same point is acknowledged, though only in passing, by Alethea Hayter’s nod to “more friendly reviews” (193) in her 1962 book. Both earlier studies therefore call into question Arinshtein, who cites only harshly critical passages from reviews in Blackwood’s, the Saturday Review, the Athenaeum, the Examiner, the Globe, the Observer, the John Bull, and Frazer’s Magazine (38) and thus implies that the “editors and reviewers of twenty or so leading British magazines and papers” all read Poems before Congress—and “A Curse for a Nation” in particular—in the same way (39).

[6] Scott Lewis offers a somewhat different version of the Congress in his notes to EBB’s letter to Arabella of 29-31 March 1859, the first letter in which EBB mentions the Congress. He indicates that negotiations regarding the Congress occurred throughout the year and does not identify the Congress with Napoleon’s later proposal (LTA 2: 400 n.12).

[7] The Brownings’ connections in Italy not only with the English diplomat Russell, but with American diplomats such as William Burnett Kinney, U.S. representative to the Court of Sardinia (Piedmont) from 1850 to 1853 (LTA 2: 19, 24n26), provided one channel for EBB’s knowledge of American political responses to Italian politics. These connections also help to keep her abreast of developments in the U.S. regarding slavery such as John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, the subject of a ballad written by Edmund Clarence Stedman, son of Kinney’s wife Elizabeth Clementine Kinney and her first husband Edmund Burke Stedman. On 24 February 1860, EBB praised the ballad for its “rough power” (FF 295-96, 297n.14).

[8] Barnes implies that the decision to change the title came from the publisher but does not cite the evidence for this inference (58).

[9] For more detailed information on political contexts relevant to EBB’s major works on the Italian question, see Donaldson’s headnote to Poems before Congress, WEBB 4: 547-52, and Stone and Taylor’s headnote to Casa Guidi Windows in vol. 2 of WEBB, ed. Stone and Taylor, (481-91).

[10] Tennyson’s “Riflemen Form!” appeared in the Times on 9 May 1859 and was derided by EBB. See, for instance, FF 411, LTA 2: 411, and Woodworth’s “Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Alfred Tennyson on Napoleon III” (543-60).

[11] See Donaldson’s headnote to Poems before Congress on the similarities in the “evolution of both EBB’s and RB’s views of Louis Napoleon” drawing on scholars such as Flavia Alaya and Leo A. Hetzler (in WEBB 4: 549-50).

[12]  Lewis notes that the cession of Nice and Savoy to France had been agreed to between Napoleon III and Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont, at a secret meeting in July 1858, but became “publicly known” in March 1860 (LTA 2: 458 n.7). 

[13] After receiving a quite positive review of her Poems (1844) in the Atlas (31 August 1844),  EBB had earlier privately identified it as “the best newspaper for literary reviews, excepting always the ‘Examiner’” (BC 9: 164; for the text of the review, see 326-30). Edmund Ollier (1826-86), was the son of Charles Ollier, publisher of Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Shelley; such affiliations with political liberalism are further reflected in other periodicals he contributed to, including the Examiner, the Leader and Household Words. See Dickens Journals Online, www.djo.org.uk/indexes/authors/edmund-ollier.html. His obituary in The Academy (Oswald 309-10) identified him as “a poet of tenderness … a journalist of firm convictions, a Liberal who would  not bend the knee to the ruling fetish,” and a “popular historian,” noting that he was a sub-editor of the Leader, 1855-58, editor of the Atlas,  1859-60, and literary editor of the London Review, 1864-66 (309).

[14] On the referendum results, see George Martin’s The Red Shirt and the Cross of Savoy: The Story of Italy’s Risorgimento (1748-1871), Dodd, Mead, 1969, p. 411, cited by Donaldson, WEBB 4: 567n1.

[15] See “The London Daily News” and Roy Douglas, Liberals: A History of the Liberal and Liberal Democratic Parties (45).

[16] King of Sardinia, later first King of a united Italy.

[17] The Globe and Traveller reviewer goes on to cite Napoleon Bonaparte at Milan in 1797, where he is reported to have scornfully repudiated the idea that he aimed to found an Italian “Republic,” stating instead that there would “never be peace in Europe until united under one chief – an Emperor whose officers should be kings” (277).

[18] EBB’s petname, used by her family and close friends from her childhood on.

[19]See Hugh Craig and Antonia Alexis, “Six Authors and the Saturday Review” (67, 82). The attacks published in this periodical provided food for “savage joy” among Cambridge undergraduates at breakfast on Sundays (82). When EBB’s brother George Moulton-Barrett wrote to her that “everyone condemned her for her new book,” she responded by describing reports from her friends in Florence that “a Saturday reviewer” visiting there “alive & in the flesh” had acknowledged it to be a “brutal article certainly” (LTA 2: 459 n17).

[20] Lewis identifies this as Bowen’s review (LTA 2: 459 n17), but that appears in the “Reviews” section, not as a “leading article” on France.

[21] See Aytoun’s echo of the “Pythoness” metaphor, below, and the discussion of the long life of this metaphor in criticism hostile to EBB in Stone’s “The Advent of Aurora Leigh.”

[22] Janice Carlisle,  BRANCH, “On the Second Reform Act, 1867.” See also Tucker, BRANCH, “In the Event of a Second Reform.”

[23] Skelton (writing under the name of “Shirley”) is citing Canning’s verse satire, “Old Morality,” published in the last issue of the Anti-Jacobin (# 36, 9 July 1798); cited Hinde (61).

[24] See Chris R. Vanden Bossche’s essay “On Chartism” for BRANCH.

[25] The composition history of the individual poems in the collection, however, is not as straightforward as this writer assumes: EBB informed Isa Blagden that she had finished “Italy and the World” on 1 January 1860, referring in the same letter to reports that there can “be no Congress” (FF 262).

[26] The reviewer’s excited indignation is further reflected in the misquoting of EBB’s description of Napoleon III as a “wonder” who “cannot palter nor prate” (ll. 330-1) to a “wonder” who “cannot falter nor prate” (54).

[27] Though EBB in 1860 described Chorley’s review of Aurora Leigh as “kind and generous” (LEBB 2: 381), it was in fact largely critical; see the analysis of Chorley’s response in Stone, “The Advent of Aurora Leigh”. For Chorley’s more positive response to EBB’s poetry earlier in her career, see the “Biographical Sketch” of Chorley in The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 8: 325-28, also available digitally at http://www.browningscorrespondence.com/biographical-sketches/?id=266

[28] As indicated by the OED, this term signifying “fishwife, especially a French one” was widely used to denote “any of the Parisian market women who led riots during the French revolution.”

[29] Lewis notes that he is unable to identify either the “Liverpool paper” or the American review in question (LTA 2: 471 n6).

[30] This metaphor was mocked by James Ferrier in his Blackwood’s review of EBB’s 1844 Poems, though defended by Edgar Allan Poe in America (WEBB 1: 385).

[31] These letters appear to be the ones to which EBB refers when writing to George Barrett, “I have letters from persons who pass with us as excellent judges in poetry, & who place these poems above anything I have written in their scale and proportion—that is, except Aurora Leigh” (Landis 226).

[32] EBB mentions the possibility of a second edition of Poems before Congress and reports Chapman’s comments in very similar terms in an unpublished letter to her brother “Stormie” (Charles John Moulton-Barrett) of 14 June [1860], now in Wellesley College Library. She also alludes to the possibility of a second edition in letters to Eliza Ogilvy (LEBB 2: 394) and to her brother George (Landis 234).

[33] See Chapman’s “‘In our own blood drenched the pen’” (269-86).

[34] In an unpublished letter dated 29 January 1861 to Jane Wills Sanford (now in the Armstrong Browning Library), EBB remarks, “I’m glad you liked my poems before [sic] Congress—There are several more (published in America) which will appear in the second English edition”; in another unpublished letter to Tilton, dating from October or November 1860, EBB asks him to send her letter on to her American publisher, C. S. Francis, so that two recent poems might be included in a subsequent edition (qtd. Woodworth 282, 286).

[35] As Barnes notes (110), the year of 1860 saw the fifth edition of Aurora Leigh (London, Chapman and Hall). Following Last Poems in 1862, Chapman and Hall released a fifth edition of EBB’s Poems. The Greek Christian Poets was published by Chapman and Hall in 1863, reprinting essays EBB had published in 1842 in the Athenaeum and revised in expectation of republication prior to her death (Barnes 62). Chapman and Hall issued sixth editions of Aurora Leigh and of Poems in 1864 (Barnes 111). Edition after edition of Aurora Leigh, EBB’s collected Poems, and various selected works proliferated up to the end of the century and beyond in England and America.

[36] On EBB’s periodical poetry in the Independent, see Chapman (Networking the Nation 224-42).

[37] For the complete memorial inscription, see Appendix D in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, ed. Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (356).

[38] See also Sandra M. Gilbert, who underscores the similarities between Dickinson and EBB’s representations of Italy (197-98, 208).