Poetry and Portraiture, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Obsession with Wordsworth’s Face

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading through the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and discovered something odd: Barrett Browning was seemingly obsessed with portraits of William Wordsworth.

Writing to her friend Mrs. Martin in a letter dated December 7, 1836, Barrett Browning articulates the joy she felt upon first seeing an engraving of Wordsworth: “Papa has given me the first two volumes of Wordsworth’s new edition. The engraving in the first is his own face. You might think me affected if I told you all I felt in seeing the living face.”[1]  Several years later, in a similar letter to Mrs. Martin dated October 22, 1842, Barrett Browning dramatically claimed, “I write under the eyes of Wordsworth.  Not Wordsworth’s living eyes…but this Wordsworth who looks on me now is Wordsworth in a picture.”[2]  The “picture” Barrett Browning alludes to is Haydon’s famous portrait of Wordsworth musing upon Helvellyn.

wordsworth_on_helvellyn-large

After seeing this portrait, Barrett Browning wrote a sonnet titled “On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B.R. Haydon.”  The first draft of this Petrarchan sonnet speculates on the relationship between poetry and portraiture:

Wordsworth upon Helvellyn! Let the cloud

Ebb audibly along the mountain-wind

Then break against the rock, and show behind

The lowland valleys floating up to crowd

The sense with beauty.  He with forehead bowed

And humble-lidded  eyes, as one inclined

Before the sovran thought of his own mind,

And very meek with inspirations proud,

Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest

By the high altar, singing prayer and prayer

To the higher Heavens.  A vision free

And noble, Haydon, hath thine art released.

No portrait this, with Academic air!

This is the poet and his poetry.

The climactic lines of this sonnet suggest that Haydon’s portrait is somehow intrinsically bound up with Wordsworth himself. Barrett Browning suggests that the three things are unified – poet, poetry, and portrait – all in one. Though seemingly innocuous, this sonnet actually started a polite debate between Barrett Browning and Wordsworth about the function of artistic agency and the relationship between poetry and portraiture.  After Barrett Browning sent the draft sonnet to Haydon, he passed it on to Wordsworth.  Wordsworth then wrote Barrett Browning a letter and suggested that she change the ending.   Wordsworth suggested that “the verse…would be somewhat clearer thus, if you would tolerate the redundant syllable:

‘By a vision free / and noble, Haydon, is thine art released’”

In Barrett Browning’s version, Wordsworth is the “vision free and noble” – a vision that is simply “released” by Haydon.  With the sly addition of a single preposition, Wordsworth completely changes the emphasis of the poem, highlighting the “vision” of the artist.  The difference might seem too minute to be important, but the lines present two competing ideas about what artists are and do; Wordsworth suggests that the artist constructs a vision, while Barrett Browning contends that the artist reveals the vision.  Notably, Barrett Browning did not accept Wordsworth’s suggested alternation, but brokered a compromise between both ideas in her final revision of the line:

“A noble vision free / Our Haydon’s hand has flung out from the mist:”

So, she still maintains that the image of Wordsworth is “a noble vision free,” but it is no longer a vision “revealed.”  Instead it is “flung out from the mist” – a change that presumably makes room for Haydon’s artistic/visionary agency. One might assume that this exchange might have dampened Barrett Browning’s enthusiasm for Wordsworth’s portraits.  Yet, in a letter to Robert Browning dated December 4, 1845, Elizabeth assures him that she still has Wordsworth’s portrait hanging in her room, in the fashion of “true hero-worship.”

I’m still researching the  Barrett Browning – Wordsworth connection, but it seems to me that, at the very least, her preoccupation with portraits of Wordsworth raises several interesting questions about the function of poetic art and its relationship to the visual arts, as well as the culture of “fandom” in the Victorian period.

[1] Kenyon, Frederic G. eds. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York and London: The MacMillan Company. (1899): 43

[2] Ibid., 112.