Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mr. Haydon’s Portrait of Wm. Wordsworth. [1 p.] [ca. 1842]. Holograph sonnet unsigned. Published in The Athenaeum, 29 Oct. 1842. Later published in her Poems (1844). Leaf 3 recto of her autograph notebook. Browning Guide D0617

Rare Item Analysis 

by Ann Vondrak, Meagan Smith, and Megan (Renee) Van Horn

The Armstrong Browning Library holds an original manuscript of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon. This manuscript, in Browning’s own handwriting, contains a note written at the bottom – “evangelist of nature” – that was not reprinted, and the punctuation of the manuscript is in several places significantly different than in the printed version in Poems. This poem deals closely with the two men mentioned in her title: William Wordsworth and Benjamin Robert (B.R.) Haydon. In order to understand the significance of these two men to her poem, we must first look into the history of EBB’s poem and how she came to write her sonnet. On June 18, 1815, the Duke of Wellington led the army to fight in the Battle of Waterloo and won. This victory inspired the chain of events that would eventually culminate in EBB’s On a Portrait of Wordsworth. Years later, in 1839, artist B.R. Haydon decided to paint a portrait of Wellington looking out at Waterloo to commemorate the battle. The next year, on August 31, 1840, Wordsworth decided to climb to the peak of Helvellyn, inspired by Haydon’s portrait of Wellington. Wordsworth went on to write a sonnet about his experience. Two years later in 1842, this time inspired by Wordsworth’s sonnet, Haydon completed a portrait of Wordsworth upon Helvellyn. That same year, EBB saw this portrait and was inspired to write her sonnet On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon which was then published in the Athenaeum and then published again two years later in Poems. The manuscript of EBB’s sonnet is now kept in the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Collection under Browning Guide Number D0617. A previous student’s analysis of this item can be found here. Upon examining this manuscript, several points surfaced that merited further research and examination. The following analysis will consider the long history that led to the creation of this sonnet that deals with the influence many artists at that time had on each other, EBB’s personal biography and health concerns that prevented her from interacting with nature, and EBB’s perception of Wordsworth as compared with the perception Wordsworth himself and those close to him experienced.

By studying the inspirations which brought EBB to the decision to write On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon, it is interesting to note how all the artists, Haydon, Wordsworth, and EBB herself, exhibit humility throughout their works. The Duke of Wellington and Wordsworth did not ask for their portraits to be painted. Similarly, Haydon did not ask for Wordsworth or EBB to write sonnets about his paintings. Individually, each of these artists seem to be inspired by humility instead of a desire for pride in their works. However, together, it appears as if they were not only inspired by humility, but they were inspired by each other’s humility. A pattern can be seen from artist to artist, beginning with Haydon himself. The Duke of Wellington, although not an artist in the sense of being a poet or a painter, was still a part of the chain of events which sparked the movement that would eventually inspire EBB to write her sonnet. The Duke’s humility can be seen through his “dislike of sitting for his portrait”, but doing so anyways for Haydon (The National Portrait Gallery). Apparently, “he was even reluctant to lend Haydon the helmet and sword which appear in the foreground [of the painting]” (National Portrait Gallery). Once Wordsworth saw this portrait, he was inspired to climb Helvellyn and even wrote a sonnet to commemorate the experience. He passed this on to Haydon, who was motivated by the sonnet to paint another portrait, only that time, it was of Wordsworth. Wordsworth was said to be “pleased with Haydon’s heroic image, describing it as ‘a likeness of me, not a mere matter-of-fact portrait, but one of a poetical character’” (National Portrait Gallery). The fact that Wordsworth took it upon himself to write his own sonnet shows his humbleness, and perhaps it also shows that he was inspired by Haydon’s own humbleness.

This pattern of humility begins to reveal itself as these artists were not only influenced by each other’s original creations, but they were also inspired by each other’s modesty in their works. Haydon’s portrait of Wordsworth is finally viewed by EBB, a woman who adored the poet, and found herself further inspired by it to write her own sonnet, On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon. She told her friend, Julia Martin, in a letter sent on January 23, 1837, that she met Wordsworth and that “His eyes have more meekness than brilliancy,—& in his slow, even, articulation there is rather the solemnity & calmness of truth itself, than the animation & energy of those who seek for it” (The Browning Letters). This reveals that Wordsworth, although a great poet, had that sense of humility about him which most likely led him to write his sonnet after seeing Haydon’s portrait. This humbleness continues on through the chain of artists as EBB, in another letter, wrote on October 13, 1842 to Haydon and said “You have brought me Wordsworth & Helvellyn into this dark & solitary room—how should I not thank you? Judge for yourself, Mr Haydon–But you will judge the sonnet too, & will probably not acquit it–[5] It confesses to speaking unworthily & weakly the feeling of its writer,—but she is none the less, your obliged” (The Browning Correspondence). She shyly sent her sonnet to Haydon out of pure humility. She did this only for the hope that she could give back even a little bit of the joy which he had brought to her by painting Wordsworth’s portrait. In the same letter, she said “I have indeed looked at your picture until I lost my obligation to you in my admiration of your work,—but in no other way have I been ungrateful. How could I be so? I have seen the great poet who ‘reigns over us’[3] twice face to face,[4]—& by you, I see him the third time” (The Browning Correspondence). Humility seems to be a contributing factor in all of these artists’ works. However, humility is more than simply an individual characteristic, but a steady pattern between Haydon, Wordsworth, and EBB. Their artistic works not only inspired these sonnets and portraits, but they inspired their humility.

A close look at EBB’s manuscript, combined with a knowledge of her personal history, indicates the possibility that Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not admire Wordsworth’s work solely based on its literary merit. Between the years 1838 and 1843, EBB’s declining health forced her into the life of a recluse. It was during this time away from the outside world that she wrote this draft of On a Portrait of Wordsworth (1842). EBB met Wordsworth in person at least twice in her lifetime, and based on letters she exchanged with her friend, Julia Martin, it is clear she held great admiration for Wordsworth, describing him favorably in her writing.

As someone who was confined to a bedroom for a large portion of her adult life, it is understandable that EBB would write a poem such as this about Wordsworth during her time as an invalid. As a poet whose primary focus was nature and the ways in which people relate to it, Wordsworth would have provided a kind of window into the outside world that did not exist for EBB at the time. This relationship with Wordsworth’s poetry is brought to light in a letter that EBB wrote to Haydon after she completed her sonnet about his painting of Wordsworth. In her letter, she writes to Haydon, “You have brought me Wordsworth and Helvellyn into this dark and solitary room. How should I not thank you?” The letter is first and foremost and admiration of Haydon’s work, but certainly expresses EBB’s admiration of Wordsworth as well, both in person and in poetry.

Furthermore, EBB makes choices within her sonnet On a Portrait of Wordsworth that indicate her desire to put herself into a closer context with Wordsworth. The most evident example of this is at the beginning of line 2 of the poem (both the manuscript and the published version), which has “ebb” as the first word of the line. The word ebb is, of course, spelled the same as EBB’s initials. By making this choice, EBB is attempting to put herself into context with Wordsworth, putting a representation of herself into a poem that so admiringly addresses him. EBB also puts in context with the verb “ebb” the noun “cloud” (line 1) which is ebbing with “the mountain-wind” (line 2). Her use of these images could be her way of not only indicating her desired connection to Wordsworth, but her own frailty of health, the wispy, wind-blown clouds being a representation of her weakened state.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was clearly very fond of Wordsworth. Within her sonnet, her language elevates him to the position of “poet-priest”—a high honor to both EBB and Wordsworth. It is interesting then to see the parallels between EBB’s sonnet and Wordsworth’s own poem III from Poems on the Naming of Places (“There is an Eminence”). In lines 9-11 of her poem, EBB specifically refers to Wordsworth as the “poet-priest”. She writes that the image of Wordsworth, “Takes here his rightful place as poet-priest/ By the high altar, singing prayer and prayer/ To the higher Heaven.” EBB’s diction is particularly indicative of her elevation of Wordsworth. By using language such as “priest”, “prayer”, and “Heaven” to describe him, EBB elevates Wordsworth to the role of a divine leader. This theme of elevation is explored by Wordsworth himself in There is an Eminence. While it is his sister who makes the initial connection between Wordsworth and the peak he writes of, it is indeed Wordsworth who decided to pen these thoughts. Similar to EBB, Wordsworth uses the language of elevation to describe himself; however, Wordsworth uses language that elevates him in the physical realm rather than the spiritual realm. Wordsworth writes that the peak his sister named after him is “so high / Above us, and so distant in its height” (5-6). When Wordsworth does use the word “heavens” it is used to describe the physical sky rather than a spiritual place—indeed, he does not capitalize the word as EBB does in her sonnet. Wordsworth writes of “The star of Jove, so beautiful and large / In the mid heavens, is never half so fair / As when he shines above it” (10-12). The heaven Wordsworth describes is no more than the backdrop for the star of Jove and it holds no larger religious significance in this context. Despite their similar language, EBB and Wordsworth seem to have radically different perceptions of Wordsworth’s character. While EBB seems to almost worship him as the “poet-priest” and elevate him to a status worthy of being followed, Wordsworth himself chooses to focus on the solitude associated with this position of elevation. He refers to his eponymous peak as a “lonely Summit [to which he has] given [his] Name” (17). From an outsider’s perspective, the elevation of Wordsworth is associated with the divine, but from Wordsworth’s own perspective this very elevation is synonymous with loneliness. EBB’s manuscript and Haydon’s portrait from which it was inspired help to understand the sometimes contradictory way in which Wordsworth was viewed by his contemporaries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon reflects the influence of a number of factors in her life. The combination of the effects of her fellow artists, of her own health, and of her personal perception of Wordsworth led EBB to create this manuscript (as well as the published sonnet) in a way that reflects her personal interactions with Wordsworth and Haydon through these lenses. Further research of this item could doubtless provide continued insight into EBB’s public works as well as her private life, and the ways in which her writing was influenced by the people and perceptions around her. This item can also be used to evaluate EBB’s early writing processes and the ways in which she altered (or elected not to alter) her works between the various stages of their completion.

Additional materials:
EBB Sonnet on Wordsworth Handout

EBB Sonnet on Wordsworth Presentation