Introduction to the Omnibus Critical Edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “On a Portrait of Wordsworth”

Dino Franco Felluga, The Omnibus and COVE
Christopher Rovee, Portrait and Poem
Marjorie Stone, Evolving Sonnet: Composition, Contexts, and Textual History
Joshua King, Genre and Form

The Omnibus and COVE

Dino Franco Felluga

This edition of EBB’s sonnet, most widely known under the title of “On a Portrait of Wordsworth, by R. B. Haydon,” is the first effort to create what we are calling an “omnibus edition” of a literary work. The edition brings together three tools that have been created for The COVE: The Central Online Victorian Educator at 1) a multimedia annotation tool, based on the NEH-funded Annotation Studio, which allows groups of scholars to annotate and then publish primary material, followed by peer review and copy-editing at the open-access publication platform, COVE Editions; 2) a timeline builder, based on TimelineJS, that allows users to create subject-specific timelines, including the ability to incorporate any of the timeline events already published (with accompanying articles by scholars) in BRANCH: Britain Representation and Nineteenth-Century History (; and 3) a geospatial map-builder, based on OpenLayers, that is interconnected with the timeline builder and allows users to toggle on and off a historically correct map of the United Kingdom from the 1880s, drawing on an ordnance map supplied to us by the National Library of Scotland. The “omnibus” edition that results allows readers to explore a text across multiple trajectories: close analysis of the original text (including the reproduction of associated media); exploration of personal, cultural, and historical chronologies; and the discovery of associated geospatial locations. Although EBB’s poem is just fourteen lines long, this approach makes it clear just how fully the poem extends out to a rich cultural, historical, and geographical hinterland.

We could think of this approach as the opposite of Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” though just as much facilitated by the use of digital tools. Let us call it persistent reading. Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps comes closest to characterizing such a form of reading: 

For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, continuous work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. . . . This art does not so easily get everything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers. (3) 

Of course, a musical performance, as suggested by Nietzsche’s use of “lento” or slowly, proceeds through a piece once; our work has been one of continual performative repetition, with each interpretation opening for us new channels and observations. We also offer an invitation to others to continue this process through future annotations of this same text. Unlike a traditional codex edition (traditionally a senior scholar offering a unified vision and interpretation of an author’s oeuvre), our edition is an ever-regenerating performance that is communal and persistent through time.

By adopting new tools like the timeline- and map-builder, our approach facilitates discovery. An example: EBB met William Wordsworth at a literary dinner hosted by her cousin John Kenyon. In our research and discussions, we determined that the most likely location for that dinner was Kenyon’s home, which we decided must have been 39 Devonshire Place in London at the time of the dinner, 28 May 1836. (Clicking on the links in the previous sentence takes you directly to the omnibus timeline and geospatial map information.) When we plotted that address on our geospatial map, we could see precisely how close the dinner was to EBB’s residence at the time, 74 Gloucester Place. The address happens also to be right around the corner from EBB’s famous London residence, 50 Wimpole Street, where she moved with her family on April 1838. Being able to imagine EBB walking across London to meet Wordsworth at her cousin’s home adds a visceral connection to the poetry that is largely missing from past editions.

This edition and COVE more generally are also designed to cross the divide between research and teaching. Our scholarly annotations can be filtered off to provide a class with a “clean” text for annotation or one can access the source text at COVE Studio. One can also use filters to see only a certain kind of annotation (e.g., just cultural or interpretative ones). While we were in the process of mounting our edition, Joshua King and Dino Franco Felluga ran a live annotation event as part of King’s senior-level romantic poetry seminar at Baylor university (pictured below), which allowed King and Felluga to discuss the poem with ten undergraduate students and fourteen guests (graduate students, library staff, Baylor faculty, and visiting faculty from the United Kingdom and Australia). The vibrant discussion informs many of the annotations added here by those two editors. In particular, we’d like to thank participants Kristen Pond, Jonathan White, Lesa Scholl, Eileen Bentsen, Melinda Creech, David Thomson, Sørina Higgins, Marcus Appleyard, Connor Watkins, Annie Dang, Holly Spofford (who served as our amanuensis), and Armstrong Browning Library Director Jennifer Borderud (who took the photograph below).

Poem discussionWe have decided to base our annotation on the fair-copy manuscript in the Armstrong Browning Library because we wish also to explore the significance of changes to the poem across its history of publication, including some significant differences between the original fair-copy manuscript in the Armstrong Browning Library collection and all published versions of the poem. See below (“EBB’s Evolving Sonnet”) for more on the poem’s textual history. A number of our annotations are, therefore, textual. These can be easily toggled on and off using the filter tool. Indeed, given the large number of annotations, you will want to make use of the filters or you may have some difficulty seeing the trees for the forest.

This edition and COVE more generally are efforts to address the current “crisis in humanities publishing.” Presses are increasingly unable to publish material that is of value to Victorian scholars since they must take into consideration which codex books are most likely to be adopted by undergraduate classrooms. That is the main reason we have recently seen such an explosion in the number of handbooks, encyclopedias, and companions being published: presses know that libraries will still purchase books directed to classrooms. The COVE seeks to provide an alternative, while adhering to the same high standards of peer review, copy-editing, and proofing that one finds in past print publications.

We also seek with this edition to provide material not easily provided in print form: timelines, geospatial maps, multimedia, and a much more extensive set of scholarly annotations. We are making use of digital tools at once to reclaim the means of production for scholarly editions and to enhance our experience of reading those editions. 

Portrait and Poem

Christopher Rovee

A monument to the mind-in-creation, Haydon’s Wordsworth on Helvellyn (1842) is one of Romanticism’s iconic images. It gives concrete form to the romantic critic William Hazlitt’s description of a Wordsworth who “lives in the busy solitude of his own heart; in the deep silence of thought” (19: 11). The twentieth-century art historian A. C. Sewter considered it not just the best portrait of Wordsworth, but “the finest portrait of the nineteenth century” (324). And in the words of the critic and biographer Stephen Gill, it is “what an image of Wordsworth should be” (38). Such comments extend the initial adoration within the Wordsworth circle. On her death-bed in 1847, the poet’s daughter, Dora, said of the portrait: “it is perfection” (qtd. in Blanshard 167). 

The portrait by Haydon originated in an exchange of letters and artistic gifts. Having received from Haydon an etching of a grandly heroic, 9-by-11-foot portrait of the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth (on 31 August 1840) produced an ekphrastic poem about this image while walking up Helvellyn. As he wrote Crabb Robinson: 

Haydon has just sent me a spirited Etching of his Portrait of the Duke of Wellington taken 20 years after the Battle of Waterloo, from the Life. He is represented upon the field; but no more of the Picture—take my Sonnet which it suggested the other day. The lines were composed while I was climbing Helvellyn. … I was seven hours on my feet without being at all tired… (Letters 4: 106-7)

When Wordsworth sent Haydon this sonnet on 2 September, he noted that it was “actually composed while I was climbing Helvellyn last Monday” (Letters 4: 100-1). Wordsworth on Hevellyn thus can be understood as a portrait of Wordsworth composing a sonnet about another portrait by Haydon (see Hunt; Rovee 171-77).

As such, Haydon’s portrait of Wordsworth evokes a formal poetic exercise—a poem about a portrait—which EBB also participates in. Wordsworth frequently entered into the genre of the portrait-poem during the period leading up to EBB's sonnet (see Scott 129-30; Haley 101). He wrote several sonnets inspired by portraits of public figures (the Duke of Wellington, in “By art’s bold privilege”; Henry VIII in “Recollection of the Portrait of King Henry Eighth, Trinity Lodge, Cambridge”; even himself in “To the Author’s Portrait”). He also wrote in response to private pictures (“Lines Suggested by a Portrait from the Pencil of F. Stone”; a series of poems about portraits of Isabella Fenwick; two sonnets on his wife’s portrait, both titled “To a Painter”). EBB’s own sonnet, "Mr. Haydon's portrait of W. Wordsworth," thus represents her own foray into familiarly Wordsworthian territory. 

The specific prompt for EBB’s sonnet, Wordsworth on Helvellyn, was itself little-known until Matthew Arnold used it as the frontispiece for his edition of Wordsworth’s poetry in 1879. (Its lone previous book-publication—as an engraving by H. S. Sadd—had been in a memoir of Wordsworth by George Gilfillan, which appeared in August 1849 issue of The Eclectic Magazine). Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, a period when Wordsworth sat for scores of portraits as part of an effort to market himself to middle-class readers (see Rovee 150-81), he was best-known by another image: Henry William Pickersgill’s 1832 oil portrait, painted at the request of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Through its widespread dissemination as an engraving, the “St. John’s Pickersgill” (as it is now called) became the dominant nineteenth-century image of Wordsworth. It served as frontispiece to his 1836 collection of Poems (the first time Wordsworth had authorized such a use of his engraving) and was subsequently reprinted in six more editions of his poems throughout the 1840s. The engraved portrait also turned up in gift-book profiles and as the frontispiece for the first American edition of Harper’s Magazine in 1850. 

Within the Wordsworth family, Pickersgill’s painting was, at first, a sensation. A cosmopolitan painter of political and military worthies, the artist bore with him an air of glamor and excitement, and the preliminary chalk drawing by “Pick”—as Wordsworth’s daughter Dora called him—was beloved by all the household. Dora wrote that “none of the females of this house could gaze upon it for 5 minutes with eyes undimmed by tears” (qtd. in Blanshard 76). Wordsworth gave a more stoic endorsement: “We all like it exceedingly,” he wrote to the bookseller Edward Moxon, before giving instructions for its use in an edition (Letters 2: 554-55). For Wordsworth, the portrait was more than a simple family piece; it was, to use his own word, “business” (Letters 3: 115; see Rovee 152-58). 

By the time of its appearance at the head of his 1836 Poems, though, Wordsworth was more ambivalent. Henry Crabb Robinson protested that the St. John’s Pickersgill made Wordsworth’s eyes look sickly—“The picture wants an oculist,” he wrote (qtd. in Blanshard 78)—and Wordsworth agreed, expressing a wish for the artist “to retouch it” (Letters 4: 120). There was also a more general sense that this widely circulated Wordsworthian image did not adequately express his poetic power. The reviewer for the Athenæum, discussing its appearance in the 1834 Royal Academy show, remarked on the missing sense of solitary sublimity so often associated with Wordsworth: 

the genius of art must do more; we demand for Wordsworth, not a look equal to the management of the stamp revenue for Westmoreland alone, but something of that dignity of intellect which dictated his truly noble poems; we want a little inspiration; we desire such expression as will induce the spectator to say, “that is the look of a poet.” (The Athenæum no. 342 [17 May 1834], 379) 

The picture failed to capture the “essence” of “Wordsworth”; the “look of a poet” should exude the aura of “truly noble poems.” This “look” is what Haydon’s Wordsworth on Helvellyn seeks to depict. EBB’s sonnet, with its bold assertion, “This is the poet and his poetry,” indicates that she thought he’d succeeded.

EBB’s Evolving Sonnet: Composition, Contexts, and Textual History

Marjorie Stone

If Haydon’s 1842 portrait, “Wordsworth on Helvellyn” has a complex history embedded in exchanges between Haydon and Wordsworth, earlier works by each, and allusions connecting painting and poetry, so too does EBB’s sonnet on the portrait. The sonnet’s multiple “artistic conversations” cross periods, artistic forms, and genres, as indicated by the poem’s extended headnote in the 2010 Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hereafter WEBB).[1] These conversations arising from the sonnet’s compositional contexts in turn shape its complicated textual history, reflected in its changing titles and EBB’s revisions in the text before and after its initial publication in the Athenaeum (29 October 1842), after which it was quickly reprinted in America in the New-York Daily Tribune and the New-York Weekly Tribune (WEBB 2:75). 

EBB’s epistolary friendship with Haydon began in April 1842 and led to the exchange of animated letters in which the poet expressed her intense interest in the Romantic writers who had been Haydon’s contemporaries, and Haydon shared his personal knowledge of poets such as John Keats (sending EBB a copy of his famous sketch of Keats in profile and the gift of a 60-line fragment from the ms of Keats’ “I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill”). Haydon also expressed his tribulations as a painter, including his quarrels with the Royal Academy and his resentment when his 1843 designs for frescoes in the new Houses of Parliament proved to be unsuccessful in the competition.[2] Although Haydon did not meet EBB in person, their correspondence led him to send his unfinished portrait of “Wordsworth on Helvellyn” for a private viewing in her room at 50 Wimpole Street after her sisters had admired it in his studio. Describing Haydon’s generous act to Mary Russell Mitford on 15 October 1846, EBB exclaimed at the portrait’s “magnificent head, its white hair glittering like a crown,” and said, “I mean to send a sonnet back with it as a witness to my feeling” (BC 6:106). 

She enclosed a fair copy of the sonnet in a letter thanking Haydon on 17 October, 1842, saying that she had been “struck dumb with the pleasure” that his act “conferred,” and remarking, “I have seen the great poet who ‘reigns over us’ twice face to face, -- & by you, I see him the third time—You have brought me Wordsworth & Helvellyn into this dark & solitary room” (BC 6:107). The first occasion when EBB interacted with Wordsworth “face to face” was the dinner at Kenyon’s home in May 1836 already noted, when she also first met Mitford, who would go on to become a literary mentor and one of her most frequent correspondents. The second occurred shortly after, when she accompanied Wordsworth and Mitford on a visit to the Duke of Devonshire’s garden at Chiswick. As she later wrote of these encounters, Wordsworth “was very kind to me, & let me hear his conversation,” sitting “near” her at the dinner, and reciting “a translation by Cary, of a sonnet of Dante’s” (BC 3:205, 217). 

Nevertheless, her little-known prose account of her conversation with Wordsworth, probably written in 1836 shortly after meeting him, suggests that even as a young poet, she was not merely an awed listener to the great man’s “conversation.” The account, first published in WEBB (5:523-25), records her impressions of Wordsworth’s voice and appearance, as well as their dialogue concerning the Italian poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri and the “poetic mind” – a dialogue in which she was evidently an active and at points quietly dissenting interlocutor, as she also was in her intertexual debates with Wordsworth’s poems in ballads such as “The Poet’s Vow,” published in October, 1836 in the New Monthly Magazine (WEBB 1:225-51). After their meeting in 1836, Wordsworth remained interested in seeing “Miss Barrett” again, reading and praising her 1838 volume, The Seraphim, And Other Poems, and proposing “twice” to Kenyon, in the summer of 1842 (before her sonnet on Haydon’s portrait was written), that he should visit her in her room on Wimpole Street. However, Kenyon said “no” because she had recently declined to see Robert Browning, who had expressed a similar wish to meet the reclusive invalid poet (BC 6:111, 114-15). 

Like her sonnet on Haydon’s portrait of Wordsworth, EBB’s letters and critical essays reflect her reverence for the writer she repeatedly described as a “king-poet” (see below), intermingled with a subtle sense of rivalry and opinions on his limitations. Ranking Wordsworth among the “Immortals,” she quipped to Mitford on 4 February 1842, “I might, if I were tempted, be caught in the overt act of gathering a thistle because Wordsworth had trodden it down . . . of gathering it eagerly like his own ass!” (BC 5:231). Her self-mockery and play with Wordsworthian rustic metaphors, however, registers her parodically excessive hero-worship. Her 1842-43 letters include many comments on Wordsworth combining assessment of his poetic strengths with awareness of his weaknesses, as in a comparative analysis of his greatness in comparison to Lord Byron’s in a letter to the classical scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd of 26 November 1842 – who found her sonnet on the Wordsworth portrait “inferior to many of the very beautiful things” she had written, but “quite good enough for such a Man” (BC 6:171, 207). 

EBB’s most extended assessment of Wordsworth and one especially resonating with her sonnet on Haydon’s portrait of him appears in her review of his Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years; Including The Borderers, a Tragedy (WEBB 4:507-19), published in the Athenaeum (27 August 1842) before she composed the sonnet. On the one hand, she speaks to Wordsworth’s role “as poet-hero of a movement essential to the better being of poetry” (510), groups herself with other “hero-worshippers” who are “at the feet of Wordsworth” (510), and especially praises his achievement in his earlier achievements on “high sonnet ground,” exceeding even the “Shakespeares, Spensers, Miltons” in “various thought, imagery, and emphatic eloquence” (511). She also praises as “beyond Petrarch” (512) the “softer sense” of Wordsworth’s sonnets paying tender tribute both to his wife Mary Wordsworth and Margaret Gillies1839 portrait of Mary Gillies’ portrait the same year of Wordsworth with Mary in a scene of quiet domesticity [ or ] forms a striking contrast to the representation of Wordsworth in both Haydon’s portrait and EBB’s sonnet as a heroic elevated figure in sublime solitude. 

On the other hand, EBB’s Athenaeum review characterizes the works in Wordsworth’s 1842 collection as not among his finest, especially regrets his “series of sonnets in favour of capital punishment” (511), and notes his tendency even in Lyrical Ballads to confound “nature with rusticity” and “fall into vulgar conventionality” (510). In terms uncannily akin to Keats’s much cited description of Wordsworth’s poetry as manifesting the “egotistical sublime,” she also presents Wordsworth as a poet who spreads “his infinite egoism over all the objects of his contemplation” in his elevated but self-absorbed contemplation. Viewing the world with the “eye” of the “soul,” “he beholds his own cloud-capped Helvellyn under the same conditions with which he would contemplate a grand spiritual abstraction.” Her terms are carefully chosen. While she describes Wordsworth as an “eminently . . . religious poet,” she also remarks on his “human Spinosism,” commenting that he is “not, indeed, altogether as generous and capacious in his Christianity as in his poetry” (509). Such observations imply the nuanced mix of praise and subtle critique underlying her representation of Wordsworth in her sonnet as “one inclined / Before the sovran thoughts of his own mind” and as a “poet-priest” whose “rightful place” is by “the higher altar” beneath the “yet higher Heav’ns” (ll. 5-6, 9-11).[3]

After EBB sent Haydon a copy of her sonnet in mid-October, he encouraged her to submit it to the Athenaeum, which she had done by 20 October; Haydon also sent either her fair copy (or his own copy of it) on to Wordsworth (BC 111-12). This prompted a letter to EBB dated 26 October 1842 from the great poet himself, expressing how “gratified” he was “for this effusion of feeling towards myself,” and praising her sonnet as “in full accordance with the Painters [sic] intended work,” and “vigorous” in expression. He commented at greater length, however, on the “obscure” language in her opening lines (especially the word “Ebb” in line 2 – see below and our annotation). He also noted the “construction” rendered “obscure” in ll. 12-13 by the “want of inflexions in our language,” proposing that she reword “A vision free / And noble, Haydon, hath thine Art releast!” to “By a vision free / And noble, Haydon, is thine Art released” -- if she “could tolerate the redundant syllable” (BC 6:121-22). She did not take his advice in either instance, although the description of Haydon’s “Art” in these lines is the most noticeably revised section of the sonnet, as the change to “A noble vision free / Our Haydon’s hand has flung out from the mist!” in 1844 indicates. 

Haydon’s sending of EBB’s sonnet to Wordsworth reminds us of how often poems still circulated in ms in the Victorian period, a practice along with its complex “artistic conversations” that contributes to the number of mss of this sonnet catalogued under entries D0615-620 in “The Brownings: A Research Guide” ( The first of these, the rough draft of the sonnet in one of EBB’s four tiny, tangled working notebooks now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, is drafted in ink over pencil, following EBB’s frequent practice. Our textual annotations record revealing differences in wording between this rough draft and the fair copy that forms the focus of this COVE edition (D0617), written in a notebook now at the Armstrong Browning Library titled “Sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1842.” This fair copy text (though not the title or the punctuation) is identical to the text of the copy EBB sent to Haydon (D0616, transcribed in BC 6:108n2), although the copy to Haydon is signed “Elizabeth B. Barrett” and the “Sonnets” notebook copy is unsigned and includes the words, “evangelist of nature!” inserted below the sonnet – a provocative addition open to varying interpretations, as our annotations suggest. Haydon also wrote on his copy, “Very fine— BRHaydon,” underscoring his own signature with a flourish, taking ownership of the sonnet and its praise, as it were. 

The titles of these two fair copies are also similar, although contrary to the order implied by the numbering of the entries in the “Research Guide,” EBB’s revisions suggest that the ABL notebook copy preceded the copy she sent to Haydon and is thus the first extant fair copy of the poem. According to the transcript in BC, the ms of Haydon’s copy is titled “Sonnet on Haydon’s picture of Mr. Wordsworth. 1842—”. The ms in Harvard’s Houghton Library, however, shows that EBB first had “Mr.” before Haydon, as she does in the notebook fair copy, but crossed this out and inserted “Sonnet” above “Haydon” and “on” before the painter’s name. This revision is also reflected in the title of the sonnet as published in the Athenaeum (“Sonnet. On Mr. Haydon’s Portrait of Mr. Wordsworth”). As her successive title revisions suggest, she seems to have gone back and forth on the question of using “Mr.” before “Haydon,” and also using “W.”, “Mr.”, or nothing at all before “Wordsworth” – although the close resemblance of “W.” and “Mr.” in her hand leads to differing interpretations on this point (see our annotation). She also alternated between “picture” and “portrait” in the titles in differing mss of the poem, as she does in referring to Haydon’s painting in her letters. The “Sonnets” notebook uses “portrait,” as does the title of the sonnet in the Athenaeum.The ms sent to Haydon uses “picture,” as does a third fair copy (D0618) titled “Sonnet on Mr. Haydon’s picture of Mr. Wordsworth” bound by a collector in with EBB’s prose account of meeting Wordsworth and some holograph letters (including Wordsworth’s letter to her of 26 October). 

EBB altered the title again to “On a Portrait of Wordsworth, by R. B. Haydon” in 1844 in collecting it with a wide range of new major and minor works in her two-volume Poems, published by Edward Moxon on 13 August 1844. There are at least three significant features to note about this revised title. First, perhaps reflecting her growing confidence as a poet in a collection demonstrating her powers, she dispensed with the “Mr.” that appears before both Haydon’s name and Wordsworth’s name in the poem’s more deferential title in the Athenaeum. Secondly, she refers to “a Portrait” (emphasis added), possibly because in April 1843, she had seen another less finished portrait of Wordsworth by Haydon (see our annotations), which he sent to her when he reclaimed “Wordsworth on Helvellyn” to finish it (BC 6:106n.5) Thirdly, either EBB or the printer made a slip in giving Haydon’s initials as “R.B.” instead of “B.R.” 

This is a slip that the poet corrected in revisions she made in the printer’s copy for the American edition of her 1844 collection (D0618.1, Research Guide), published in New York by Henry G. Langley under the title A Drama of Exile: And Other Poems on 1 October 1844 (though dated 1845). In her successively expanded collections of Poems published in England in 1850, 1853, and 1856, however, Haydon’s initials are still given as “RB” (although the comma after “Wordsworth” in the title disappears in all three). Since EBB does correct the reversed initials in 1844 for the American edition, in WEBB (using the 1856 edition of EBB’s Poems as copy-text), the General Editor Sandra Donaldson emends Haydon’s initials to “B. R.” (WEBB 2:75). Given that the sonnet is in part a tribute poem to Haydon, and given the ample evidence in the printer’s copy for Poems (1850) that EBB gave very detailed attention to correcting her poems (as well as extensively revising many works), the persistence of the reversed initials is surprising. She was assisted in these corrections by her husband (whose hand is also evident in the 1850s printer’s copy at various points, directing the printer to “Go on” to this or that poem), and the initials “R.B.” were possibly so deeply ingrained in the psyches of both that the slip was not noticed.

One final aspect of the textual history of EBB’s sonnet on Haydon’s portrait relates to the further “artistic conversations” she created through her careful attention to sequencing and juxtapositions in her collected Poems or what Neil Fraistat terms “contexture.”[4] In 1844, the sonnet appears third in a series of 28 sonnets in which, as Joe Phelan and Amy Billone have demonstrated, EBB was challenging comparison with Wordsworth, in part to distinguish herself from the “‘Sonnettomania’” critics associated with a prolific feminized “poetess” tradition illumined by Marianne Van Remoortel (98). EBB gives prominence to her sonnets collectively in 1844 by positioning them immediately after her ambitious lead poem “A Drama of Exile” (which takes up where Milton leaves off in Paradise Lost); among these sonnets, she gives prominence to “On a Portrait of Wordsworth” by placing it immediately following “The Soul’s Expression” and “The Seraph and the Poet.” These two sonnets can both be read as expressions of her artistic credo, and are positioned first among her miscellaneous sonnets in all of her collections. However, the second also frames her representation of Wordsworth as “poet-priest” beside a “high altar” beneath the “higher Heav’ns” in suggestive ways, with its contrast between the seraph singing with “the full life of consummate Heaven” and the poet below on a “grave-ridden” earth. She followed the sonnet on Haydon’s portrait with “Past and Future,” expressing her own orientation towards Heaven and the Christian belief her 1842 review noted as less “capacious” than his poetry in Wordsworth’s case.[5] 

In Poems (1850), when EBB included three sonnets from her 1838 volume in an expanded series of 46 miscellaneous sonnets, she altered this contexture. In the 1850 collection, “On a Portrait of Wordsworth” comes sixth in the sequencing, and is immediately preceded by her 1838 tribute sonnet “To Mary Russell Mitford in Her Garden” (WEBB 2: 69-71). This juxtaposition may have been suggested by the fact that she met Mitford and Wordsworth on the same day at the same dinner, or by the fact that Kenyon brought her cuttings from Wordsworth’s Rydal Mount garden in July 1841 (BC 6: 368, Supporting Document 1177). As her two tribute sonnets to George Sand indicate (WEBB 2: 125-34), she also frequently created poetic pairings, as Wordsworth does in his sonnets on Gillies’ portraits of his wife, or as numerous other Victorian poets do – Tennyson and Robert Browning, for instance. Nevertheless, the Mitford-Wordsworth sonnet juxtaposition also sets up a suggestive parity between the two writers, despite their difference in gender, even as it activates contrasts between the quotidian and the sublime, between the “low-rooted verse” EBB offers as a return gift to Mitford for her friendship and her flowers (l. 8) and her return gift to Haydon portraying Wordsworth on the heights of Helvellyn. 

Genre and Form

Joshua King

EBB wrote her sonnet on Haydon’s portrait of Wordsworth at a moment when a rising number of sonnet anthologies testified to the widespread popularity of the genre (Houston, 244, 264-265). She structured the sonnet in a way that positioned her as an interlocutor with some of the most influential sonneteers in English—not only Wordsworth, but also one of Wordsworth’s acknowledged literary masters, John Milton (1608-1674). By 1842, Wordsworth had firmly established himself as England's preeminent living sonneteer,[6] although he had been preceded in reviving the form as a serious vehicle of reflection by influential women sonneteers such as Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and Anna Seward (1742-1809) (Phelan 9-10). Indeed, after 1820, Wordsworth effectively set aside the epic ambitions signalled by poems such as his nine-book Excursion (1814) and “began a new career as a sonneteer,” writing hundreds of sonnets in the remaining decades of his life (Robinson 289). He publicly signalled his endorsement of the sonnet in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), which included a significant number of sonnets in the Miltonic form—the format he steadfastly followed, with only occasional variation, in most of the 535 known sonnets composed over his career (Kerrigan 60, 74). Wordsworth broadcast his Miltonic debts by apostrophizing Milton in his sonnet "London 1802": "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour" (1). Opening with a bold apostrophe was one of several expressive qualities characteristic of Milton's sonnets. For example, Milton began several sonnets with apostrophes to his friend Cyriack Skinner (Sonnet 21: "Cyriack, whose Gransire..."; Sonnet 22: "Cyriack, this three years day").

Milton's sonnets were also distinguished by several other qualities. He departed from earlier English sonneteers in preferring a traditional Petrarchan rhyme scheme (with the first eight lines, or octave, rhyming abbaabba, and the concluding six, or sestet, employing a different set of rhymes, always without a closing couplet: often cdcdcd or cdecde). Yet Milton resisted the closure normally expected at the end of the Petrarchan octave (the end of the eighth line), allowing his sentences to run freely from the octave into the sestet. This contributed to Milton's rejection of the two-part division encouraged by the Petrarchan octave-sestet structure. Instead, Milton's sonnets, as Wordsworth noted in a letter, tended to follow a three-part movement of thought and rhetorical energy (22 April 1833; Later Years II.604). As a result, Milton's sonnets are full of enjambments, as his lines group themselves into three major motions of thought that defy tidy containment by line endings and rhymes. This quality grants Milton's rhymed sonnets the energetic motion of his blank verse in Paradise Lost.[7] Milton's sonnets also recalled the powerful flexibility of his blank verse by employing expressively inverted syntax (i.e., pointedly unusual but significant word order, or "hyperbaton"). All of these Miltonic qualities entered the great majority of Wordsworth’s sonnets (Johnson 21-43), including two of those he wrote to Haydon in response to the latter's paintings. These sonnets, as discussed above and in our annotations, eventually inspired Haydon to paint Wordsworth, and both the painting and the sonnets were known to EBB when she wrote this sonnet. 

EBB therefore fittingly adopts many Miltonic stylistic elements in her own ekphrastic sonnet, which (as noted above) describes a painting about Wordsworth writing a sonnet, and is therefore a tribute to Wordsworth and his mastery of the sonnet form as much as it is to Haydon and his art. In doing so, she uses the form Wordsworth adopted in homage to Milton to honor Wordsworth, whom she called "the king-poet of our times" and "the KING" (BC 6.28, 6.111). Yet she also asserts her fitness to enter the territory charted by Milton and Wordsworth, expressing a subtle rivalry with the preeminent poet of her day. She was herself, after all, keenly experimenting with the sonnet form in the 1840s, her “decade of sonnets” (WEBB 2.55). In fact, commenting on this sonnet near to the time she sent it to the Athenaeum, she asserted that although the “sonnet structure is . . . imperious,” “our language is” qualified “for the very strictest Italian form,” noting “I have been exercising myself in it not unfrequently” (BC 6.110-112). EBB saw this sonnet, in other words, as a public demonstration of her own prowess, alongside Milton and Wordsworth, in using the demanding Petrarchan (or “Italian”) rhyme scheme for accomplished expression in English. Indeed, we see this with her opening Miltonic apostrophe, where she addresses the figure of Wordsworth portrayed in Haydon’s painting: 

Wordsworth upon Helvellyn! Let the cloud
Ebb audibly along the mountain=wind (1-2)

EBB’s lineation places "Wordsworth" directly over the pun on her own name, "Ebb," in the second line (Woolford 58).[8] EBB frequently used "EBB" as her authorial signature throughout her career, and was later happy that her marriage to Robert Browning would not require her to adjust it (see annotation on EBB’s name at the start of the edition, above the title and text of the sonnet). In correspondence, Wordsworth had asked EBB to remove the "Ebb," declaring it obscure; but she refused to do so when publishing the poem (see above and annotation on “Ebb” in the edition). Perhaps she did not wish to dilute the complex mixture of homage and rivalry that the Miltonic opening of her poem contained. 

Given the importance of the Miltonic sonnet structure to EBB's reflection on Wordsworth in this sonnet, it is helpful to compare it with one of the sonnets by Wordsworth that EBB would have had in mind when writing her own: "To B.R. Haydon, on Seeing His Picture of Napoleon Buonaparte on the Island of St. Helena" (pub. 1832), also reprinted in another note for this edition. I have bracketed and numbered the sonnet's three main movements, boldfaced enjambments, and italicized significant inversions of syntax: 

[1 Haydon! let worthier judges praise the skill
Here by thy pencil shown in truth of lines
And charm of colours;] [2 I applaud those signs
Of thought, that give the true poetic thrill;
That unencumbered whole of blank and still,
Sky without cloud—ocean without wave;]
[3 And the one Man that laboured to enslave
The World, sole-standing high on the bare hill—
Back turned, arms folded, the unapparent face
Tinged, we may fancy, in this dreary place
With light reflected from the invisible sun
Set, like his fortunes; but not set for aye
Like them. The unguilty Power pursues his way,
And before him doth dawn perpetual run.]

EBB's sonnet likewise employs a Petrarchan rhyme scheme, defying the two-part division this scheme invites by resolving into three movements that privilege the flow of meaning over the limits of line endings and rhyme units. Lines 1 through 4.5 (ending at "beauty") apostrophize and describe the painted scene. Lines 4.5 through 11.5 (up through "Heav'ns"), the poem's center, concentrate on and characterize the figure of Wordsworth in the painting. Lines 11.5 through 14 turn to Haydon's noble accomplishment in releasing, through this painting, the true character of the poet and his poetry. Like Wordsworth, EBB enjambs lines almost obsessively, and she also overrides the division between octave and sestet (the sense of line 8 continues into line 9). Her syntax is equally expressive and inverted: e.g., "along the mountain=wind / Then break"; three lines separate the central subject of the sonnet, "He" in line 5, from its verb, "Takes" in line 9 

[. . . ] He with forehead bowed
And humble=lidded eyes, as one inclined
Before the sovran thoughts of his own mind
And very meek with inspirations proud,
Takes here his rightful place [. . .] (5-9)

 This second syntactic inversion, which describes Wordsworth, is most noticeable, and it is perhaps significant that the most pronounced inversion in the sonnet by Wordsworth quoted above also concentrates attention on its central figure, in that case Napoleon as portrayed by Haydon. EBB’s opinion of Napoleon near this time exhibits a complex mixture of admiration and antagonism, both in her correspondence with Haydon (e.g., BC 7.52-54) and in her poem “Napoleon’s Return,” published in 1840 in the Athenaeum. Perhaps EBB imports into this portrayal of Wordsworth a related if less severe admixture of attitudes, even as she applies to Wordsworth his own technique for calling attention to the central subject of a painting by Haydon (one Wordsworth also employed in his sonnet on Haydon’s portrait of Wellington). EBB distinguishes Wordsworth’s “sovran thoughts” from Napoleon’s imperial ambitions (7). Yet she nonetheless combines her portrayal of Wordsworth’s “meek” demeanor with notice of his “inspirations proud” (8), emphasizing the potentially critical “proud” by placing it at the enjambed turn from octave to sestet, and introducing a subtle form of cognitive dissonance by making it rhyme with “bowed” in line 5. Tacitly acknowledging that Wordsworth’s rustic and “humble” “inspirations” risk becoming “proud” or even egotistical (see section above), EBB at the same time suggests that she is able to master the sonnet form he has made his own, and even to give him—“here” in the sonnet as well as the portrait—”his rightful place” (9; see our related annotation).

Works Cited

Billone, Amy. Little Songs: Women, Silence and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet.Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Blanshard, Frances. Portraits of Wordsworth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959.

Brogan, T.V.F., et al. "Sonnet." The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Roland Green, et al., Princeton UP, 4th edition, 2012. Credo Reference. Accessed 17 Oct 2017.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Gen. Ed., Sandra Donaldson; Vol. Eds. Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor. 5 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010. Cited as WEBB.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert. The Brownings’ Correspondence. Ed. Philip Kelley& Ronald Hudson, vols. 1-8; Kelley & Scott Lewis, vols. 9-14; Kelley, Lewis, & Edward Hagan, vols. 15-19; Kelley, Lewis, Hagan, Joseph Phelan & Rhian Williams (vols. 20-23); Kelley, Hagan & Linda M. Lewis (vol. 24). Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 1984-). Also available online at Cited as BC.

Fraistat, Neil. Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Gill, Stephen. Wordsworth and the Victorians. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Haley, Bruce. Living Forms: Romantics and the Monumental Figure. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. 21 vols. London: J. M. Dent, 1934.

Hunt, Bishop C., Jr. “Wordsworth, Haydon, and the ‘Wellington’ Sonnet.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 36 (1975): 111-32.

Johnson, Lee. Wordsworth and the Sonnet. Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1973.

Kerrigan, John. "Wordsworth and the Sonnet: Building, Dwelling, Thinking." Essays in Criticism, vol. 35, no. 1, 1985, pp. 45-75.

Levine, Naomi. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Historiographical Poetics." Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2016, pp. 81-104.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. 

Phelan, Joseph. The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Robinson, Daniel. “The River Duddon and Wordsworth, Sonneteer.” The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, edited by Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson, Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 289-308.

Rovee, Christopher K. Imagining the Gallery: The Social Body of British Romanticism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word : Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994.

Sewter, A. C. “A Revaluation of Haydon,” Art Quarterly 5 (1942).

Van Remoortel, Marianne. Lives of the Sonnet, 1897-1895: Genre, Gender and Criticism. Farnham, Surrey & Burlington, VT:, 2011.

Wagner, Jennifer. A Moment's Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet. Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1996.

Woolford, John. “Elizabeth Barrett and Wordsworth,” SBHC, 20 (1993): 48-61.

Wordsworth, William. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth; the Later Years. Vol. 2. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Clarendon, 1939.

Wordsworth, William, and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, 1821-1853. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. 2nd ed. Rev. and arranged by Alan G. Hill. 4 parts. Oxford University Press, 1978-88. 


[1] See the headnote in WEBB, vol. 2, ed. Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor, pp. 73-77. This section draws at points on my earlier collaboration with Taylor. As with other works by EBB, the WEBB edition of this sonnet lists all textual variants in editions published in EBB’s lifetime, collated by General Editor Sandra Donaldson.

[2] For an overview of Haydon’s life and relationship with EBB, see the “Biographical Sketch” ) originally published in The Brownings’ Correspondence 5:370-73, hereafter BC.

[3] See our annotation on “poet-priest” and these adjoining lines in the edition.

[4] In Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections , Fraistat proposes a stipulative sense of the term “contexture” to convey “the special qualities of the poetic collection as an organized book,” including “the contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, the intertextuality among poems so placed, and the resultant texture of resonance and meanings” (3) On EBB’s attention to sequencing and the structures of her collections, see Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor, “Introduction to Poems (1856) WEBB, 1: lxi-lxxx, p. lxv. For a comprehensive list of the contents indicating the sequencing of the poems in all volumes published in her lifetime, see Appendix II, compiled by Sandra Donaldson, in WEBB 2:573-88.

[5] For further discussion of the religious dimension of EBB’s response to Wordsworth in this sonnet, see notes on “poet-priest” and “evangelist of nature” in the edition of the poem.

[6] See section above for a summary of EBB’s high evaluation of Wordsworth’s sonnets in comparison with Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser.

[7] Milton recognized this fact by inserting unrhymed sonnet-like units into that epic; Wordsworth adapted this strategy in his Prelude (pub. posthumously in 1850) (Brogan), as did EBB in her blank-verse epic novel, Aurora Leigh (1856) (Levine 96-99).

[8] Woolford persuasively argues for this placement of “Wordsworth” and “EBB” as a sign of EBB’s “unconscious impression of being repressed and having her creativity, encrypted into her initials, effaced by him” (58). There are many reasons to agree with this interpretation, especially given that Wordsworth had tried to get EBB to remove “ebb” in correspondence. Yet, as suggested below, we might equally regard this sonnet as signalling EBB’s assertion of her own creative capacities, including her capacity to capture and represent the nature of Wordsworth’s poetry and poetic achievement.