"Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn": EBB's Sonnets to George Sand






Publication: Victorian Poetry
Author: Billone, Amy
Date published: December 1, 2010

Elizabeth Barrett Browning revered the fiction of George Sand, feeling such a kinship with her French female contemporary that she described her to Mary Russell Mitford as "the greatest female poet the world ever saw" (my italics).1 As Marjorie Stone persuasively maintains, "Barrett Browning found no woman writer to match Sand's genius among her precursors and contemporaries."2 EBB was aware that while the relatively short history of the novel displayed a fair number of high quality female authors, none of the many past ages of poetic expression provided female role models. Her famous complaint, "I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none," implicitly suggested an unsettling distinction between male and female intellectual abilities.3 EBB saw no alternative but to adopt an anti-feminist position, which she defended to Robert Browning: "I would confide to you perhaps my secret profession of faith- which is . . . that let us say and do what we please and can . . . there is a natural inferiority of mind in women- of the intellect . . . and that the history of Art and of genius testifies to this fact openly."4 She qualified her position, however, with a single exception to this rule: George Sand- not only her French contemporary but, as she fervently believed, the only woman "down all the ages of the world" who justified "an opposite opinion" (Kintner, 1:113).

To express her admiration for Sand, EBB wrote a sonnet pair in her honor, the first version of which appeared in Poems, in Two Volumes (1844): "To George Sand: A Desire" and "To George Sand: A Recognition." EBB first began reading Sand in 1842, which was a key date for her because it corresponded to her turn to the sonnet form in the aftermath of her brother's death. Unable to verbalize her "hopeless grief after her beloved brother drowned in 1840, EBB grew very attracted to the sonnet form, which she saw as both arising out of and simulating the death-like silence of profound suffering. In Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (2007), I argue that "the sonnet, better than any other form, allowed nineteenth-century women poets to investigate and promote gendered interpretations of silence."5 As I have shown, women were drawn to the sonnet form "because, with its exigent rules of meter, syllable count, rhyme scheme, and structural shifts, it offered them a ready-made metaphor for the difficulties of articulation" (p. 156). Anxious about the absence of great female poets in previous generations and worried that women might lack the intellectual and artistic capacity of their male counterparts, nineteenth-century women poets were deeply troubled by their own historical and seemingly inexorable silence. As I will illustrate in this paper, the George Sand sonnets to a certain extent reinforce the alliance between femininity, silence, grief, and the sonnet that I have previously examined in EBB's work. But the two sonnets also add a glimmer of hope to the case I have previously made about EBB's grieving sonnets of 1844, sonnets that might easily be read as confirming the desperate reticence of the nineteenth-century woman poet. In her sonnets to George Sand, EBB suggests that the union between brother and sister selves might be made (or at least might almost be made) within the sonnet structure itself.

EBB's George Sand sonnets are so stylistically dense and so rich with allusions that they have perpetually eluded critics. As Margaret Morlier emphasizes, EBB's sonnets to George Sand "remain two of Barrett's most difficult poems."6 While feminist scholars such as Helen Cooper, Sandra M. Donaldson, Dorothy Mermin, Elaine Showalter, and Patricia Thomson have debated the sonnets' aesthetic merit, Morlier adopts a historicist approach.7 Through this method, she pays close attention to the topical nuances in EBB's poetic language and alerts us to "carefully chosen diction that responds to specific issues raised in the English press" (p. 320). More recently, Clare Broome Saunders has demonstrated how EBB "uses medievalism to present positive examples of female activity to a contemporary society that expected a chivalric iconization of passive women of her class."8 Saunders is interested in EBB's use of allusions to Joan of Arc. For Saunders, "EBB uses images of the medieval saint to strengthen her version of Sand and support her views of the confining nature of gender expectations, while at the same time empowering Joan with the contemporary writer's revolutionary freedom" (p. 593). Saunders shows how EBB made George Sand and the cross-dressing medieval military woman analogous to one another in her sonnet pair so as to supply positive illustrations of how women might successfully enter the public sphere.

Although I draw from previous scholarship in this essay, my methods of analysis and the conclusions I reach differ from those of other critics both in the strategies of close reading that I exercise and in the careful attention that I pay to Sand's novels, which influenced EBB's sonnets in subtle and surprising ways. Imitating the structure that EBB mobilizes of the Victorian sonnet pair, I will offer two competing readings of EBB's sonnets to Sand. These conflicting interpretations do not cancel one another out; instead, they illuminate the mechanisms that EBB employs both to assess and to reevaluate the perplexing relations among the gendered body, silence, and the sonnet form. My first reading of "To George Sand: A Desire" will stress how EBB endeavors to assume Sand's position of "pure genius." By contrast, "To George Sand: A Recognition" seems to mourn the impossibility of creative achievement for both Barrett and Sand due to their inescapable affiliation with the female body. With my reading of Sand's fiction in mind, I will then reexamine EBB's sonnets in order to substantiate the more hopeful conclusion that I think EBB ultimately reveals about the potency of the sonnet form. Overall, I will probe EBB's complexly affirmative answer to the following question: Does the sonnet as a synecdoche of lyric poetry succeed or fail to transcend the gendered constraints of the human body?

I

Laudatory sonnets about other poets often mask critiques that permit sonneteers to engage in the articulation and justification of their own poetic projects. For this reason the reading that I will initially propose about the first sonnet, "To George Sand: A Desire," resembles the evaluation I develop in Little Songs about EBB's attitude toward Wordsworth in her sonnet "On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon" (1844), as well as the analyses I put forth of sonnets allegedly written in praise of EBB and Christina Rossetti by Michael Field, Dora Greenwell, and Maria Norris. In what follows, I will illustrate how in "A Desire" EBB the ambitious poet competes with Sand the famous novelist, while in "A Recognition" she surrenders to the realization that try as they might neither female artist can ever cloak the "woman-heart."9

TO GEORGE SAND.

A DESIRE.

Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,

Self-called George Sand! whose soul, amid the lions

Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance

And answers roar for roar, as spirits can:

I would some mild miraculous thunder ran

Above the applauded circus, in appliance

Of thine own nobler nature's strength and science,

Drawing two pinions, white as wings of swan,

From thy strong shoulders, to amaze the place

With holier light! that thou to woman's claim

And man's, mightest join beside the angel's grace

Of a pure genius sanctified from blame,

Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace

To kiss upon thy lips a stainless fame.

Formally, Morlier argues that EBB employs in her George Sand sonnets the same heroic-political sonnet form that structures the Sonnets from the Portuguese.10 After sixteenth-century Italian poets developed the form, Morlier has shown, Milton introduced it into English, followed by Wordsworth, who revived it in the "Liberty Sonnets" of his Poems, 1807. While similar to the Italian amatory model in rhyme scheme (abba abba cdc dcd), the heroic-political sonnet "has a prescribed rougher texture in poetic language, created by enjambment (often of octave and sestet), abrupt syntax, and pauses irregularly placed in the poetic lines" (p. 326). Morlier suggests that EBB "challenged traditional assumptions about gender and heroism" through her use of the heroic-political sonnet form (p. 326); furthermore, she emulated "the enigmatic style of sage discourse" (p. 327). Her use of "grotesque symbols" in the Sand sonnets reflects a key feature of sage discourse (p. 328). These grotesque symbols include both scenes of horror (such as EBB's allusion in her second sonnet to the nightmarish burning of Joan of Arc) as well as the bringing together of "a seemingly disparate collection of images into one metaphor" (for example, the mixture of Biblical allusions and references to Victorian journalism) (p. 329). The challenging style of EBB's Sand sonnets anticipates strategies EBB will use in her amatory sonnets of 1850. As Marianne Van Remoortel has perceptively elucidated, the Sonnets from the Portuguese exhibit an "exceptional interpretative elasticity" which derives from "a complete overlap of literal and figurative meaning."11

While I take into account the interpretative elasticity of EBB's sonnets in this essay, I will begin by offering a reading of "A Desire" that spotlights the poet's competition with her favorite female novelist. "A Desire" begins in a cacophony- "called," "tumultuous," "moans," "roar for roar"- in which the opening apostrophe plays a part: "Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man, / Self-called George Sand!"12 Relating the female/male (and brain/heart) binary with which the quatrain opens to the soul/senses contest at its close, the alliterative pairing, "large," "large"/"roar," "roar," indicates that noise here serves as a metaphor for self division. This rupture of selfhood recollects the difficulty that articulation poses for the woman speaker in Sonnet XIII from Sonnets from the Portuguese: "I cannot teach / My hand to hold my spirit so far off/ From myself . . me . . that I should bring thee proof/ In words, of love hid in me out of reach."13 Just as the speaker refuses to "fashion into speech / The love I bear thee" in Sonnet XIII, instead responding to her lover's request for words with "the silence of my womanhood," so, too, does EBB yearn for the previous stanza's din to evaporate into quiet transcendence at the start of the second quatrain in "A Desire": a "mild miraculous thunder" that could run "Above the applauded circus." If Sand's "nobler nature," apparently androgynous, were captured by sublime expression, it would grant her access to the divine- "two pinions white as wings of swan."

By positioning the pronoun "Thou" at the start of the first quatrain and "I" as the first word of the second, Barrett conducts a veiled strategy of appropriation. If the first quatrain thematizes discord and the second harmony, this shift is mimicked formally by a change from a comparatively weak euphonic structure (besides an overall sibilance, the only sound repetition in the first quatrain is of entire words- "large" and "roar") to a highly alliterative style in which sounds melt into one another: "mild, miraculous"; "Above- applauded- appliance"; "nobler nature's"; "strength- science/swan"; "white- wings" (and internally: "I," "mild," "appliance,"/ "science", "thine"; "thunder ran"; "own nobler"). In addition to the formal mirroring of thematic progression, the transformation in style and mood is framed by a substitution of one pronoun for another: "I" for "Thou." Since this is the only time the first person singular surfaces in the sonnet, its symmetry with the introductory "Thou" is quite striking. The pronoun "I" is flanked on either side by verbs"can" and "would"- hinting at an alteration in the meaning of "would" from "wish" to the conditional of "will." A simple transposition in punctuation changes the emphasis of the second quatrain completely: "And answers roar for roar. As spirits can: / 1 would some mild miraculous thunder ran." Just as spirits can figuratively "roar" in defiance, so would the speaker of this sonnet "thunder" quietly- she already has- in a protest of her own.

The speaker's objection, it seems, is to the oppositions of the previous stanza, along with the unpoetic sonority that accompanies them. As this disharmony is associated with the invocation of a "thou" (George Sand), the supplanting of this addressee with "I" precipitates a metamorphosis in style and theme. Barrett's sudden lyricism as she articulates her desire appears formally to enact the divine murmur for which she longs, which presents Sand's "nobler nature." But the word "nature" has connotations of femininity. EBB in this way usurps Sand's role as artist, "drawing" two pinions (or two quatrains)- "white as wings of swan." The sestet takes to an extreme the already realized wish of the octave. The "strength" of Sand's "nobler nature" is here reduced to physical terms- "thy strong shoulders"- which reflects the objectification of Sand that Barrett subtly imposes on her. The complexity of this turn is echoed in "amaze the place" or the place (this sonnet), a maze.

If the second quatrain translates noise into "mild miraculous thunder," the sestet carries this progression into complete silence or "holier light." Both Morlier and Saunders note the connections between EBB's sonnets and an 1836 sketch of Joan of Arc's death from the American Monthly Review where observers "imagined that her spirit- visible to mortal eyes- soared upward, dove-like on white pinions, into viewless heaven."14 EBB's phrase "holier light" thus might be read as an example of Christian martyrdom. Sand's femininity, which EBB underscores with the phrase "nobler nature," now clearly takes priority as "woman's claim" precedes a line break; the "and man's" that follows reads almost as a parenthetical afterthought. The next to last line, "Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace," recalls the lines from two of EBB's 1844 grieving sonnets "Grief and "Irreparableness": "Till itself crumble to the dust beneath" and "Till myself shall die" (my italics), which I discuss at greater length in Little Songs (Complete Works, 2:230, 229). EBB's final desire for child and maiden to "press" to Sand's embrace and "kiss" fame upon her lips reads as an anticipation of Sand's death, the desire for her lips to be "pressed" shut, sealed permanently.

If "A Desire" exhibits an appropriative impulse, "A Recognition" seems to expose the impotence of this wish:

TO GEORGE SAND.

A RECOGNITION.

True genius, but true woman! dost deny

The woman's nature with a manly scorn,

And break away the gauds and armlets worn

By weaker women in captivity?

Ah, vain denial! that revolted cry

Is sobbed in by a woman's voice forlorn,-

Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn

Floats back disheveled strength in agony,

Disproving thy man's name: and while before

The world thou burnest in a poet-fire,

We see thy woman-heart beat evermore

Through the large flame. Beat purer, heart, and higher,

Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore

Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire!

The octave announces the previous sonnet's subtle reduction of Sand to a "true woman" who cannot renounce her "woman's nature" ("nobler nature" from above). The word "woman" appears three times in the first four lines alone, with alliteration on "worn" and "weaker," exposing the imprisonment of Sand that "A Desire" subtly brings about. In Cooper's words, "This sonnet seeks to define woman ('true woman,' 'woman's nature,' 'weaker women,' 'woman's voice,' 'woman's hair,' and 'woman-heart'); it is a bleak definition" (p. 65). Moreover, the speaker's rhetorical "Ah vain denial!" at the start of the second quatrain uncovers the futility of the speaker's own resistance in the previous poem. This distinction is "vain" as in arrogant and useless, for the speaker falls prey to the same restrictive logic with which she traps Sand. EBB's "revolted cry," which can be read as a kind of re-volta, or re-turn- the Wordsworthian bouncing back from speechless death into sublime thunder on which "A Desire" relies for transcendence- is "sobbed in" or forced into inexpressibility by "a woman's voice forlorn," a silence that can never be overcome insofar as a woman's body (her "nature") will always, it seems, show through her voice ("Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn").

"A Recognition" dramatizes the same progression into silence and vision as "A Desire"; in the sestet, even the beat of Sand's heart is seen rather than heard ("We see thy woman-heart beat evermore"), a statement mirrored by the line's meter in which stress falls on the composite word, woman-heart (like silent-bare from EBB's "Grief) rather than on the word "beat." This evolution away from voice and sound and toward a feminized silence occurs in other sonnets by EBB such as "Irreparableness" (1844) and sonnet XIII from Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). As I analyze in Little Songs, in "Irreparableness," she holds out "the nosegay that you see" but reveals it to be a cluster of dead flowers so that "living, feminized nature doubles as a dead bouquet" and "failure is itself rendered visible" (p. 63). Similarly, in sonnet XIII, "the silence of my womanhood" permits visibility: "Seeing that I stand unwon" (my italics). As Kirstie Blair explains, "The heart in the nineteenth century was often troped as feminine simply because of its associations with intense personal emotion and feeling rather than will or reason."15 To see the woman-heart beat rather than to hear it upsets the role of the nineteenth-century woman writer.

The final lines of EBB's sonnet express the speaker's hope that the inescapable embodiment of nature that femininity seems to require will be undone, that Sand, and EBB herself, will be transformed into "unincarnate spirits" (my italics). As a result, EBB ends her sonnet pair by anticipating the conclusion of many of Sand's novels, as I will show in the next section of this paper: with a desire for the afterlife, where God will "unsex" Sand "on the heavenly shore."16 Morlier astutely notes that EBB amended this line for the 1850 edition of the work, eliminating the repetition in the 1844 edition ("Till God unsex thee on the spirit-shore; / Tb which alone unsexing, purely aspire), but clarifying the positive meaning: "Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore / Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire." Even though the word "unsex" evokes the negative associations of Lady Macbeth's incantation (Macbeth 1.5.38-41), it was also a word which, as Morlier points out, "reappeared at the end of the eighteenth century in anti-Jacobin journalism, to attribute the cruel ambition of Lady Macbeth to women political writers" (p. 322). Saunders draws from Morlier's observations to conclude, "EBB is overturning these negative ideas to offer a positive idea of 'unsex,' referring to a time when sex will not matter and thus true freedom will be achieved, currently possible only after death" (p. 593-594). The difficulty with this conclusion, it seems to me, relates first to how, in Dorothy Mermin's words, "androgyny is allowable only without sex," and second to how the removal of sex/gender seems only possible in the afterlife.17

EBB appears to propose no solution to the problem of irreparable self-division between brother and sister selves apart from the hope for death. At the same time, EBB did not take her own life, nor did she pass away from grief when her brother tragically died. Instead, as Stone compellingly demonstrates in a chapter she contributed to Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era (2008), in "July 1842, as she was experiencing the creative outpouring that would result in Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (1844), establishing her international fame, she told Mary Russell Mitford the story of the girl who had read Wollstonecraft when she was twelve and dreamed of seeking her fortune as 'Lord Byron's PAGE.'"18 Not only did EBB become intensely aware in the early 1840s of her indebtedness to "the most transgressive figures of the era we now label Romanticism," Wollstonecraft and Byron, as Stone helpfully proves, but she at the same time fell madly in love with her radical crossdressing French contemporary, George Sand. As a result of these affiliations, EBB began to turn away in Stone's words from "the male impersonation of her earlier works towards increasingly gynocentric poems in which she spoke boldly in a female voice" (p. 137).

Importantly, at the same moment in 1842 when EBB embraced Sand's fiction and celebrated it in sonnet form she feverishly took up sonnet writing for the first time in her career. While EBB began publishing poetry as early as 1820, she did not print her first three sonnets until 1838. However, her 1844 collection included twenty-eight sonnets and in 1850 she published fifty sonnets. As an indirect result of her collection of the 1844 poems, EBB began a passionate romance with Robert Browning that culminated in her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and in some of the most daring work she had ever composed. How did the sonnet effectively restore EBB to life? To what extent did sonnets permit EBB to enact the same kind of collapse of self-division that only death seemed able to ensure?

II

George Sand, who was born as Aurore Lucile Dupin, and whose early married surname was Dudevant, functioned for EBB as an embodiment of potentially fused masculine and feminine selves. EBB reminds us of Sand's real name in her characterization of Aurora Leigh. Stone notes that "Aurora Leigh is named in part after Sand, whose maiden name was Aurore Dupin; and like Sand, who appeared one evening in Paris wearing ivy around her brows (LEBB 2:230), Aurora Leigh crowns herself with a wreath of 'headlong ivy' (Book 2:46)" (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 42). EBB was fascinated both by Sand's integration of different genders into her own personality and character and also by the unrealizable romantic attraction between literal brother and sister selves that Sand explores in her fiction. For example, in what might be Sand's original conclusion to her first novel, Indiana (1832), Indiana and her mirror image (a cousin/brother figure) decide to jump together into a torrential waterfall at L'Ile de la Réunion, to drown themselves in an eternal embrace. The lips of the two unite and we are left with the concluding sentence: "Then Ralph took his fiancée in his arms, and carried her off to leap with him into the mountain stream" (Alors Ralph prit sa fiancée dans ses bras, et l'emporta pour la précipiter avec lui dans le torrent).19 This image must have held special appeal to Barrett whose brother had just died by drowning and who desperately wanted to die along with him.

Romantic tension between brother/sister figures also occurs in Sand's epistolary novel Jacques (1834), which tells the story of a man who does not completely love his wife because he is in love with his "sister" Sylvia. EBB, who seemed to disagree with her close friend Mitford about all subjects literary, sent her friend a copy of Jacques, later apologizing on occasion of Mitford's "righteous indignation on the subject of Madame Dudevant" (December 21, 1842; MRM, 2:128). EBB writes, "It is precisely what I expected from YOU- and I beseech you to understand clearly that I did not send Jacques to you with any idea of his being admired" (MRM, 2:128). Because Jacques never knows for sure if Sylvia is his sister, he cannot propose marriage to her; consequently he takes his own life.

As in her reaction to Indiana and Jacques, EBB was both repelled and captivated by Sand's novel Lelia (1833), which also proposes that the union of male and female counterparts can only take place in the afterlife. The story begins in the voice of Sténio, a young earnest poet who lives in eager anticipation of the time when his passionate attachment to Lelia will be realized. But by the end of the book Sténio winds up in the same agony as Lelia herself, who is "divided between faith and atheism" [partagée entre la foi et l'athéisme] and can find no genuine happiness (p. 487). Having understood the interchangeability of virtue and vice, but finding himself unable to discover happiness in either, Sténio experiences the suspension between heaven and hell as unbearable; consequently, he takes his own life by drowning himself in the lake. At the end of the book, Lelia, murdered, joins Sténio, but through their death, these two characters become the only people in the novel who find joy- their ghosts are perceived playing blissfully over the lake like "inseparable lights" [inséparables lumières] or "two amorous souls" [deux ames amoureuses] (p. 587). In Susan Wolfson's words, "from their point of alienation, women may find themselves able to wonder about releasing spiritual poetics from a politics of gender, even enabled to imagine forms of desire neither dependent on nor limited by a sex in souls."20 Like Indiana and Jacques, Lelia concludes with the same vision of the impossible fusion between male and female doubles rendered achievable only in the afterlife.

Even though George Sand brilliantly investigated EBB's deepest desires and concerns in her fictional works, she also failed to write poems instead of novels; consequently, in spite of her genius, Sand put on display the weaknesses that her British sister poet detected in an entire nation. As early as 1829, EBB wrote to Hugh Stuart Boyd: "The French have no part or lot in poetry. I am more and more convinced that they have none."u Ten years later, after reading Lamartine and Hugo, she softened slightly her view of the French lyric in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, but her assessment still remained disparaging: "I covet your familiarity with all sorts of French literature ... a little: but not painfully. French poetry, so called by courtesy, always comes to me cold as prose" (MRM, 1:123). And as late as 1844- after she had fully realized and praised Sand's incomparable gifts- EBB made the comparison between nineteenth-century French and English poetry explicit: "Nevertheless and after all, they have not in France such a genius in the way of the genius poet, as Alfred Tennyson- so we may stay at home and look at him" (MRM, 3:3).

Paradoxically, EBB found "French essential poetry" to be "the least poetical" when it appears in standard poetic form; instead, the poetry seems "to flow out into prose works . . . into their school of romances" (MRM, 3:376). Apologizing to Mitford for reading Sand's ethically offensive books, she explained, "Style is music to me; I cannot help my pleasure in the beauty of it" Somehow it was "the bare French" of Madame Dudevant, which read to EBB as "French trans/igured." For EBB, Sand's writing defamiliarized the French language; she said: "The language is changed. It is not French- it is French no more" (MRM, 2:128). As a token of gratitude to Sand, EBB responded by honoring her in a possibly more stunning and revelatory form of writing than fiction could ever provide: the compressed sonnet sequence.

III

Whereas in my previous reading of EBB's sonnets to George Sand I suggested that EBB shows how the binary divisions Sand seems to reconcile (between men and women, virtue and vice, the mind and the heart) remain hopelessly divided and that it is only in the afterlife that these oppositions might merge, in this reading I want to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the sonnets: that Sand achieves in her writing what cannot be accomplished in real life and that EBB discovers through her love for Sand this same creative power. In "To George Sand: A Desire," it may be that rather than simply achieving androgyny in the public's eye, Sand burns to death in the context of the world ("burnest in a poet flame"). But the world does not see the same thing that "we" do: "We see thy woman-heart beat evermore / Through the large flame." This vision anticipates Aurora Leigh's command to poets to capture the pulse of the "full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age."22 In Blair's words, "'Living art' takes its motion from the 'living heart' of the age. Aurora imagines a communal poetic heart set beating, as in Dallas's theories, in time with the time itself. Poetry creates pulsation, and texts, here as in other spasmodic poems, throb sympathetically with their readers" (p. 133).

Nevertheless, EBB's use of the pronoun "we" in her Sand sonnets remains somewhat mystifying. Who is included in the "world" and who is included in "we"? The rest of the sonnet tells us that the poem's speaker aligns herself with "we" as opposed to with the "world." Morlier concludes that the George Sand sonnets have two audiences: first, in the titles and in the opening "Thou" the sonnets address George Sand herself; second, in the poems' diction they address members of the British press who have not seen Sand's worth. In Morlier's view, EBB uses the word "we" to refer both to her speaker and to English readers (presumably readers both of the press and of Sand's novels). Cooper reads the "curious dichotomy between the 'world' and 'we'" in the following manner: the "'world' implies men (or all readers who- wittingly or not- read within patriarchal blinkers) who know her as a writer; whereas 'we,' the women, recognize how Sand's 'woman-heart' informs her work" (p. 66). Because EBB saw herself as participating in a dialogue with male writers and readers, I think it is more likely that she meant men as well as women to participate in the revelation she offers at the end of her sonnets. EBB's two sonnets open up a new line of vision for her reader- suddenly we see what the rest of the world remains blind to, indeed what we ourselves could not detect before: a heart that beats "evermore"- that is, a woman's heart which does not die but is instead transformed into the divine androgyny of an unincarnate spirit.

Although "we" (EBB and EBB's reader) eventually recognize the prior existence of "a woman's voice forlorn," this does not mean that we picture Sand's literal woman-heart beat in her writing. Rather, we witness the "pure spirit" that has already attained androgyny beyond the heavenly shore. Just as EBB herself wished to do, Sand the author may have arrived at the very afterlife in her writing that her characters inconsolably craved. What EBB's "George Sand: A Recognition" finally implies is that the speaker's hopes in "A Desire" have already been realized. EBB's claim that we see Sand's hair "all unshorn" reads as an allusion to two different texts. Most obviously, it serves as a Biblical allusion to Samson. In the book of Judges 13-16, Samson (who was born to be a hero for the Israelites against the Philistines) manages to kill a lion without the help of any weapon. This scene, together with Samson's notoriously strong sexual appetite, helps to explain the opening to EBB's first Sand sonnet: "whose soul, amid the lions / Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance." In the Biblical narrative Samson becomes involved with three women: first, a Philistine woman, second, a prostitute, and third, Delilah, to whom Samson confesses the source of his strength- his uncut hair. Delilah secretly has Samson's hair cut while he sleeps, which enables the Philistines to catch and blind him, binding him between pillars of their temple. After praying for strength, Samson succeeds in tearing down the pillars and killing hundreds of Philistines along with himself. Drawing from this Biblical episode, Milton wrote his famous seventeenth-century poem, Samson Agonistes, where unlike in the Bible he presents Samson as respectably married to Delilah. In Milton's literary version, Delilah becomes another version of Eve and Samson becomes a Christ figure.

Alluding to both the Biblical account and to Milton's literary text, EBB's declaration to Sand in "A Recognition," "Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn / Floats back disheveled strength in agony, / Disproving thy man's name," reads as a twist on Samson's story, with a clear gender reversal. Unlike Samson's, Sand's hair remains "unshorn"- an indicator of "disheveled strength"- but her hair itself also serves as a sign of weakness: it is "woman's hair" which exposes the femininity behind Sand's masculine pseudonym. The phrase "woman's hair" aligns with "woman's voice" which in spite of its effort at revolt is "sobbed in" and "forlorn." According to Morlier, EBB here combines three perspectives on Samson in her depiction of Sand's hair: 1) the Biblical account, in which Samson's flaw was primarily his attraction to non-Hebrew women; 2) Milton's seventeenth-century dramatic poem in which Samson's flaw was his unwarranted trust in a woman; 3) the Victorians' reservation about Samson's undisciplined sexuality. Morlier concludes that by "bringing together these accounts, Barrett's sonnets 'To George Sand' suggest that there is an element of historical contingency in heroism. More directly, they show that a woman, even with character flaws like those of Samson, can be a contender for God and spirituality when she reveals that she is more than her socially contingent identity" (p. 324). In my opinion, while Morlier's propositions may be correct, she does not solve the most distressing problem that "A Recognition" poses: how Sand seems only to achieve transcendence in the sexless afterlife.

By referring to Sand as "my sister," EBB affirms that she and Sand are in the same position regardless of whatever competition she might have felt with the woman she considered to be the greatest female artist of all time. Stone has intelligently clarified the similar sororal relationship that existed between EBB and Christina Rossetti. In spite of the "triadic configurations of disruptive desire and conflict" that destabilize sister relationships in Rossetti's GoMin Market, "Sister Maude," and "Noble Sisters" and in spite of disagreements that may have troubled the sororal relationship between Rossetti and EBB, Stone contends that critics are wrong to undermine the affinity between two outstanding female writers of the same generation.23 Furthermore, as Stone and Beverly Taylor have shown in their introduction to the Bicentenary issue of Victorian Poetry devoted to EBB that they edited in 2006, '"Confirm my voice': 'My sisters,' Poetic Audiences, and the Published Voices of EBB," EBB wrote a fragment that begins "My sisters!" in a pocket notebook dating from the 1842-1844 period.24 The fragment concludes, "I do abjure you by this sisterhood . . . / Give me your ear &. heart- Grant me yr voice / Do confirm my voice- lest it speak in vain." Even though fifty years after her birth in 1806, there seemed little reason to believe that EBB had spoken "in vain" since she continued to play such a prominent role in the canon, a half century later, in 1906, her voice was largely muted as her critical fortunes declined. Where were her sisters then?

In many ways, EBB's cry to Sand as "my sister" and her desire to participate in Sand's "stainless fame" even after both writers have died articulates the effort to canonize her own writing alongside that of her favorite woman author. Sister figures are often mistaken for one another in Sand's fiction. For example, in Sand's novel Valentine (first published in 1832), two sisters, Louise and Valentine, enter into a love triangle with a poor unstable man, Benedict. Both women fall in love with him, although he loves only Valentine. One night, he encounters a pale woman who leans toward him. Seeing a familiar noble and pure profile, he believes he is looking at Valentine. Taking the hand of this "phantom," he begins to kiss her. Suddenly, shivering, he pulls away, asking "Who are you?" It turns out he has been kissing Louise.25 In other words, if George Sand's "woman's hair" is "all unshorn" as it floats back "disheveled strength in agony," it might easily be mistaken for EBB's.

In truth, the George Sand sonnets involve a crucial level of meaning that has so far remained insufficiently considered by critics: EBB's love of Sand's writing. EBB does not only write to Sand as a figure of simultaneous mockery and commendation from the British press; nor does she address her simply as a character made up of complex, shifting references to historical, religious, and literary texts. She finally speaks to George Sand the beloved writer. For this reason, EBB directly alludes to Sand's novels in her sonnets and the sonnets cannot be read without opening our ears and eyes to the new configurations that arise from these pivotal references. To return to the remarkable lines, "Thy woman's hair, my sister, all unshorn/ Floats back disheveled strength in agony, / Disproving thy man's name," we need to be acutely aware that Sand herself focuses on hair in Indiana. Claiming to have cut off her hair, Indiana throws it to her lover. He says he wants to keep it forever because he believes it to be hers. However, as he comes to realize, it is not her hair at all but that of her dead female servant, Noun, who drowned herself due to his betrayal of her. While both he and the reader at first believe the hair is Indiana's (and the hair matches the color and texture of George Sand's own) in truth it is the hair of a woman who no longer exists. By using the hair of two characters as duplications of each other, Sand tells us in advance that the "woman's hair" we think we detect in her writing might not be what it appears to be.

The "woman's hair" in EBB's sonnet should be read in the same waywe need only to embrace Cooper's reading of this phrase on a certain level: "No costume can mask woman's essential nature, and woman, traditionally assigned to a life of suffering, must express her condition. She will, thereby, find her strength, symbolized by the wild hair that is freed or tamed in so much of Victorian literature as either expression or suppression of woman's passion and imagination" (p. 65-66). But what if the hair itself is a mask? Indeed, the "woman's hair" in Barrett's sonnet is representative of a woman's suffering. Yet George Sand whose name in a similar fashion to the "woman's hair" remains fictive, an illusion, stands somewhere else. EBB does not refer to Aurore Dupin's actual hair when she says "Thy woman's hair"; she may complexly refer to that of a drowned woman who never existed.

This reading would complicate Donaldson's interpretation of the "woman's hair" as a sign of both strength and weakness. Donaldson writes: "In the sonnet to Sand, the hair, free and wild, indicates female emotion, but, contrary to convention, Barrett sees this passion as a strength, even a strength deriving from the agonies of love, in which a woman is most vulnerable, according to Barrett in her interpretation of Sand."26 Donaldson stresses that the "unshorn, floating hair" reappears in Sonnets from the Portuguese. And she reminds us of Ellen Moers's suggestion in Literary Women that EBB's description of the mystic Shape holding the speaker by the hair reads "as a specifically female image" (p. 40). Limiting "woman's hair" to Sand's own physical appearance and tying it to Sand's own "female emotion" does not account for the fact that George Sand, herself already a character (EBB did not call her sonnets "To Aurore Dupin Dudevant"), plays in Indiana with hair that does not belong to the woman we think it does. Ultimately, "Sand" may already have achieved the androgyny that EBB associates with the afterlife. At least this is what EBB desperately hopes is true. Hence, Barrett tells us that we see Sand's "woman-heart beat evermore" in the present tense- a heart that EBB commands to beat "purer" and "higher" even before it is unsexed "on the heavenly shore." Worshipping Sand and identifying with her, even endeavoring to take Sand's place in "A Desire" by replacing "Thou" with "I," EBB wishes to achieve this same fate through her own writing: to leap into the water, plunging into the next world.27

Importantly, if the "woman's hair" in "A Recognition" may not be Sand's at all but rather the hair of someone else, a fictional woman, a drowned woman, the "woman's heart" that EBB confidently proclaims that "we see" lacks any connection to a specific physical body. This is a heart that will never touch us, as Barrett warns us in her 1844 sonnet "Grief," that we will never see even though neither Sand nor EBB can successfully "break away the gauds and armlets worn / By weaker women in captivity." What results in the sonnet form is an inaudible "revolted cry" that is "sobbed in by a woman's voice forlorn." Just as the woman's hair and the woman's heart cannot be seen, neither can the woman's voice be clearly heard. All the sonnet can do, EBB may finally recognize, is to beg God to strip the agonized woman's heart of its gender in the afterlife.

Nevertheless, we must remember that what cannot be heard can be seen in poetic language. Herein lies the thrilling and unexpected power of silence in the compressed sonnet form. The word "hear" lies silendy buried in the word "heart"; even the beat of Sand's heart is seen rather than heard in "We see thy woman-heart beat," a line in which stress falls on the composite word, woman-heart rather than on the word "beat." Similarly, what cannot be visualized can resonate lyrically. For example, when EBB laments in "A Recognition" that Sand's "scorn" is futile, her woman's voice is "forlorn" and her woman's hair is "unshorn," we hear without immediately being visually aware of it the "roar for roar" embedded at the end of the first quatrain of "A Desire." There, Sand's soul "moans defiance" and answers the "tumultuous senses" "roar for roar, as spirits can." The roar of two sister souls pulsates throughout "A Recognition" in spite of the inward sobbing of their "woman's voice forlorn." The creative voice, synecdochically contained in the sonnet form, performs magic tricks that exceed what the body allows us to know. Meanwhile, the body lurks at the center, invisible, unheard but unforgotten.

Notes

1 EBB to Mary Russell Mitford, March 4, 1844 in The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mit/ord 1836-1854, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, 3 vols. (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1983), 2:391-392; subsequently cited as MRM. This essay is an expanded and revised version of my earlier conference paper, "'Keep my Secret:' Hidden References to French Literature in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett," Browning Society Notes 29 (January 2004): 42-50. 1 first presented versions of the conference paper at "'La Prude Angleterre': The Victorians and France, Cultural Cross-Currents in the Nineteenth Century," Univ. of London, UK (October 2002) and at the 2003 MLA Annual Convention in San Diego.

2 Marjorie Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 42.

3 The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols. (London, 1897), 1:232.

4 The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Banett Browning 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1969), 1:113.

5 Amy Bilione, Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007), p. 3.

6 Margaret Morlier, "The Hero and the Sage: Elizabeth Barrett's Sonnets 'To George Sand' in Victotian Context," VP 41, no. 3 (2003): 319.

7 See, for example, Helen Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 61-67; Sandra M. Donaldson, "Elizabeth Barrett's Two Sonnets to George Sand," SBHC 5, no. 1 (1977): 19; Dorothy Mermin, Elisabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 108; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), p. 102; and Patricia Thomson, George Sand and the Victorians: Her Influence and Reputation in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1977), p. 46.

8 Clare Broome Saunders, "'Judge no more what ladies do': Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Active Medievalism, the Female Troubadour, and Joan of Arc," VP 44, no. 4 (2006): 587.

9 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Complete Works of Mrs. E. B. Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clark (New York: Crowell, 1900), 2:239. Porter and Clark print the 1850 version of the Sand sonnets. All quotations from the sonnets are from this edition.

10 For Morlier's discussion of EBB's use of the heroic-political sonnet form in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, see "Sonnets from the Portuguese and the Politics of Rhyme," VLC 27, no. 1 (1999): 97-112. Morlier argues that the Sonnets from the Portuguese formally recall "both the masculine and feminine traditions by using the heroic sonnet to explore themes of sensibility" (p. 99).

11 Marianne Van Remoortel, "(Re)gendering Petrarch: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 25, no. 2 (2006): 260.

12 Morlier explains that one of Sand's few defenders, Italian exile Joseph Mazzini, "compared Le'lia with Byron's Manfred and Goethe's Faust, the only difference being drat 'man lives more by the brain, and woman by the heart'" ("The Hero and the Sage," p. 321). See Mazzini, "George Sand," The Monthly Chronicle 4 (1839): 13. We hear similar language in the opening of EBB's first sonnet to Sand.

13 A Varorium Edition of Sonnets from uie Portuguese, ed. Miroslava Wein Dow (Troy, New York: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1980), p. 45.

14 See Morlier, "The Hero and the Sage," p. 325 and Saunders, p. 593.

15 Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 103.

16 Using a different line of argument, Morlier reaches the conclusion that EBB's Sand sonnets create "a spiritual history for a new way of seeing 'George Sand' and her art. In fact, the sonnets are about seeing. On the one hand, they praise a transcendent, heroic impulse. On the other, they reveal the historical contingency in the construction of heroism" ("The Hero and the Sage," p. 330).

17 Dotothy Mermin, "'The Fruitful Feud of Hers and His': Sameness, Difference, and Gender in Victorian Poetry," VP 33, no. 1 (1995): 155.

18 Marjorie Stone, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victorian Versions of Byron and Wollstonecraft: Romantic Genealogies, Self-Defining Memories and the Genesis of Aurora Leigh," in Romantic Echoes in tfie Victorian Era, ed. Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), p. 123.

19 George Sand, Romans 1830, ed. Marie-Madeleine Fragonard (Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1991), p. 181. Since the first publication of Indiana in 1832 critics have divided into two groups in their evaluation of the novel's conclusion. After Indiana and Ralph appear to jump into the gulf at the end of the fourth part, the narrator abruptly changes from a third-person extradiegetic voice to a first-person intradiegetic speaker. The final, first-person narrator is distinct from George Sand; dris strongly masculine figure believes in women's intellectual inferiority to men. For an analysis of how this narrator intersects with the character of Ralph (as opposed to Indiana) see Nigel Harkness, "Writing Under the Sign of Difference: The Conclusion of Indiana," Forum for Modern Language Studies 33, no. 2 (1997): 115-128.

20 Susan J. Wolfson, "A Lesson in Romanticism: Gendering the Soul," in Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion, ed. Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1998), p. 370.

21 Bennett Weaver, "Twenty Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett to Hugh Stuart Boyd," PMLA 65, no. 4 (1950): 400.

22 Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992), Bk. V, 1. 216.

23 Marjorie Stone, "Sisters in Art: Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning," VP 32, no. 3/4 (1994): 339. In het essay "Monna innominata and Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet Traditions and Spiritual Trajectories," Stone convincingly illustrates "the inveterate nature of the gendered paradigms fJhat both poets sought to deconstruct" (The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts, ed. Mary Arseneau et al. [Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1999], p. 67).

24 Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor, "Introduction: 'Confirm my voice': 'My sisters,' Poetic Audiences, and the Published Voices of EBB," VP 44, no. 4 (2006): 391403.

25 In addition to the misrecognition of one sister for another, Sand puts into play a gendered doubling, where the ego of the feminine subject splits in two. Indiana and her chamber-maid, Noun, are separated racially, socially, and sexually. For a discussion of how these two seemingly antithetical characters converge, see Pratima Prasad, "(De) Masking the 'Other' Woman in George Sand's Indiana," Romance Languages Annual 8 (1997): 104-109.

26 See Sandra Donaldson's essay "Elizabeth Barrett's Two Sonnets to George Sand" in Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Brou/ning, ed. Donaldson (New York: G. K. Hall &. Co., 1999), p. 40.

27 Simon Avery argues that "this politics of assimilation is taken further in the form of these sonnets, of course, with Barrett casting herself in the traditional role of the male speaker of the sonnet and then addressing a cross-dressing woman. Such unsettling of conventions therefore acts to question all essentialist categories." See Simon Avery and Rebecca Stout, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), p. 94.

Author affiliation:

AMY BILLONE is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the NineteenthCentury Sonnet (The Ohio State University Press, 2007). In 2005, she wrote the Introduction, Notes and For Further Reading sections of the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. She has published essays on nineteenth-century poetry and also on children's literature for journals such as Victorian Poetry, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Children's Literature and SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. She is currently working on a book about dreams and the supernatural from Romanticism to the present. Billone has published poems widely.

People who read this article also read:
LanguageArticle
EnglishLet's Lunch!
EnglishIN ART NEWS
EnglishPARTY CRASHER

The use of this website is subject to the following Terms of Use