Essay / Literature

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Was One Theological Poet

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on this day, June 29, in 1861. She was the most famous female poet of the Victorian age, easily outpacing other luminaries like Christina Rossetti and Jean Ingelow (who?). During her lifetime, the rumor was that she only missed the post of poet laureate because that Tennyson fellow was an unstoppable candidate.

Barrett Browning’s greatest hits include the long Aurora Leigh, and the sonnet “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” But she was a relentlessly theological poet throughout her life and in all of her work. Her mind was steeped in Biblical imagery and typology, she read doctrinal treatises for edification, and she seems to have worked out a kind of Platonic-Biblical theology of what poetry essentially is as a means of communion with God.

She rose to fame on the merits of a collection of poems called Seraphim and Other Poems; the title poem is a dialogue between two angels who are beholding the plan of salvation. Personally, I would not like to read poems on that subject, because I question the whole idea of writing angel dialogue that could do justice to the speakers or the event. If you told me somebody had written a poem on the subject, I would avert my eyes out of charity and decorum, unless you told me Dante or Milton wrote it. Well, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was no Milton, but she was able to rise to great heights of poetic expression. Seraphim has only a few passages that threaten to induce cringing in the reader (those angels, ah! –they seem to be on the verge of, oh! –hugging each other oft with bright-pinioned wings), and has line after line of sparkling insight. Barrett Browning brought to everything she wrote a classical education, a delicate sensibility steeped in the greatest works of the Western literary tradition, and a remarkable inventiveness with the English language. And, of course, a religious imagination that was theological, downright dogmatic and argumentative, to the core.

Here is one of her early poems which she called a Hymn. Each stanza could be the point of departure for a solid lesson on the mediation of Christ: in bringing our praise to God, in justifying us from our sin, and in shielding us from the power of divine majesty. The poem reaches its high point in a mediation on the Father’s love for the Son, and how that love was turned to our salvation even in the very act of carrying out judgement. It ends with a coda that gathers up the leading words of each preceding stanza, and points to Christ as the one who brings us a twofold knowledge: of God’s brightness and of our darkness. The entire hymn is addressed to God the Father, praising him for his Son.

As the greatest of all sacrifices was required we may be assured that no other would have sufficed
–BOYD’S Essay on the Atonement

How high Thou art! our songs can own
No music Thou couldst stoop to hear
But still the Son’s expiring groan
Is vocal in the Father’s ear.

How pure Thou art! our hands are dyed
With curses red with murder’s hue
But HE hath stretched His hands to hide
The sins that pierced them from thy view

How strong Thou art! we tremble lest
The thunders of thine arm be moved
But HE is lying on thy breast
And thou must clasp thy best Beloved

How kind Thou art! Thou didst not choose
To joy in Him for ever so;
But that embrace thou wilt not lose
For vengeance, didst for love forego!

High God, and pure, and strong, and kind!
The low, the foul, the feeble, spare!
Thy brightness in His face we find–
Behold our darkness only there.

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