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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2013



Dr Madhu D Singh

E B Browning: A Torch Bearer of Human Rights

Literature has a unique capacity to touch the hearts and minds of people and engage them in a way that is distinctly different from political or academic texts. It can lead to a personal or even a large scale positive change. As such literature is an important tool in spreading awareness about and strengthening human rights. Whether it is the novels of Charles Dickens’ like Oliver Twist and Hard Times, or John Galsworthy’s plays like Loyalties and Justice, their themes are rooted in the question of human rights. Among those writers who believe, not in art for art’s sake but rather in art for life’s sake, E B Browning holds a prominent place. For her literature was no idle dreaming, it was a medium for social change. It was through her poems such as ‘The Cry of Children’that she raised the issue of poor children’s rights, or the question of women’s rights through her famous epic Aurora Leigh.

A passionate votary of human rights, E. B. Browning was against oppression and slaveryof every kind. That's why she was intensely involved in the freedom struggle of Italy whereshe lived for fifteen years. She composed many poems  based on the theme of Italian freedom struggle which show her basic humanism. Her poem ‘Italy and the World’  establishes  her as a champion of universal brotherhood, a humanist who sees the vision of  universal  fraternity.  She mocks at the so called patriotism of the politicians who in reality drape their self love in cheap vernacular patriotism. She has a vision of ‘….one confederate brotherhood planting/ One flag only, to mark the advance/ Onward and upward, of all humanity." (E B Browning  Complete Works, 553). To her, true civilization meant an embodiment of kindness and nobility. According to her, only that nation is praiseworthy which stands up to oppose all sorts of injustice and oppression and which protects the weak. She also questions the role of England in the context of Italian freedom movement:

I cry aloud in my poet passion
Viewing my England over Alps and sea
I loved her more in her ancient fashion
She carries her rifles too thick for me. (553)

Apart  from composing poems based on the political upheavals in Italy, E. B. Browning was equally concerned about the important developments occurring in her own country. She felt particularly concerned at the socio-political problems of England, such as  the employment of child labour, oppression and injustice, the increase of wealth on the one hand and the consequent exploitation of the poor on the other. That's why she composed poems like ‘The Runaway Slave’, ‘The Curse for a Nation’ ‘The CryofChildren’  and ‘A Song for the Ragged Schools of London’ etc. The question of employment of child labourwas intensely debated in the English Parliament and E. B. Browning's poem 'The Cry of  Children’did certainly have its impact on the public mind. It helped in preparing an opinionagainst this gross practice.'The Cry ofChildrenis in fact the cry of factory children, working in abysmal conditions in the factories and mines of rapidly industrialising England.  George  Bernard Smith rightly calls this poem “one of the noblest remonstrances against the  greed and  oppression of mankind which have ever been uttered.” (The Victorian Web).

The coming of steam power had resulted in a rapid growth of factory towns in the north of England and a demand for children to work in them grew side by side. Small boys and girls were transplanted inwagons to the factories and made to work for long hours in dark, sinew-breaking and verymiserable conditions. Overwork, undernourishment and bad housing conditions had theireffect on the health of the people, especially children. J.E. Priestly calls them “pale, deformedand half-starved factory workers." (134) Their plight is effectively highlighted by E B Browning in‘The Cry· of Children’. It is a historical fact that despite her facade of material progress andprosperity, there were innumerable paupers in Victorian England, exposing the ugly side of English society. Beneath her outward grandeur lay the ragged poor; men and women turned into wolves by stark hunger. To Elizabeth Barrett Browning this side of the picture was all too ugly and pathetic to be white washed. These beggars , hungry eyed, lying huddled up at the footsteps of palatial mansions , spread like blots on the whole city , became prematurely old. The poet exhorts her countrymen to have compassion for them:

On the dismal London flags
Through the cruel social juggle
Put a thought beneath their rags
To enable the heart's struggle (564)

E B Browning raised her voice vociferously through her poems, wherever there was violation of human rights whether it was in her own country or anywhere else, whether in Italy or in America. Despite the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, slavery was in practice all over America. This filled E. B. Browning with indignation since she had faith in the basic equality of all human beings, irrespective of their colour, creed and race. She once wrote to a shocked reader of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: "Is it possible that a woman has no business with the question … of slavery? Then she had better use the pen no more. She had better subside into slavery and concubine herself, I think, as in times of old, shut herself with the Penelopes in the women's apartments and take no more rank among thinkers and speakers.”(Qtd in Ellen Moers’ Literary Women : Great Writers, 39).

The  protagonist of the poem ‘The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point’is a black woman. She cries out "I am black, I am black/ And yet God made me, they say” (229) .This black woman mockingly refers to the brutal flogging to which she was subjected. She did not shriek but she cursed them all: "Your white men/Are after all, not Gods indeed / nor able to make Christs again”. (231) In her famous poem ‘A Curse For A Nation’  E B Browning lists the various ills pestering the United States of America such as slavery, corruption, the fiendish practice of strangling martyrs, non-action against oppression, inability or rather deliberate indifference in watching mutely, while other nations were striving ‘with the blood hounds’. Her burning hatred reaches its peak when she inflicts curses upon that country :

For your conscience, tradition and name
Explode with a deadlier blame
Than the worst of them all
This is the curse. Write. (555)

It is pertinent to remark that since 1854, both slavers and anti-slavers had been settlers into Nebraska and Kansas, and fighting between these kept on breaking out. Secret resistance movements against slavery brought thousands of slaves to freedom by hidden channels, while on the other side, gangs roamed in the streets of northern states taking Negroes as fugitives slaves and returning them to South. Escaped negroes told stories of their sufferings to packed audiences all over the north. Harriet Beecher Stowe shocked people into shameful consciousness of the system with her novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. E B Browning also depicted their plight in her poems.

E B Browning’s verse-novel  Aurora Leigh  also contains many important socio-political observations. The practice of child-labour, for example, is referred to in its Book III, when Aurora, the heroine of this novel says: 'your children work for you, not you for them.’ (425). The contemporary class-chasm is also criticized:

Dear Marian, of one clay God made us all
Though the tyrannous sword
Which pierced Christ’s heart in twain?
'Twist clan and clan, opposing rich to poor.
Shall we keep parted? Not so. (431)

The poor children hanging on their mother's neck are described by the poet as "rags forgotten on their mother's necks, poor mouths / Wiped clean of mother's milk by mother's blow.” (439) At heart always a staunch supporter of human dignity, E B Browning passionately advocates political freedom:

If veritable and lawful, is not given
By imposition of foreign hand
Nor chosen from a petty pattern book
Of some domestic ideologue who sits
And coldly chooses empire, where as well
He might republic. Genuine government
Is but the expression of a nation, good
Or not good. ... (519)

The duplicity of England's policy was always a matter of scorn to E B Browning. Through her poems, she critised the hypocrisy of England. She said that the English were democrats within England but outside they were imperialists:

Lordly English, think it over
Caesar's doing is all undone;
You have cannons on shore
And free parliaments in London. (563)

This critical analysis shows that E.B. Browning is  a passionate  votary of  human rights. For her a political or a social question is a human question as well.  Hence her treatment of such themes is invariably imbued with humanism.   Underlining this quality of E B Browning’s poetry, George Barnett Smith comments, “As long as human heart breathes for another, she will be held in high esteem. Her poetry is that which refines, chastens and elevates.”  (The Victorian Web). To E B Browning, freedom is the basic right of every individual. The authority which oppresses this fundamental right is abhorrent. Hence, her burning hatred for Metternich, and eulogisation of Napoleon II because he helped in freeing Italy from the clutches of Austria. It was E.B. Browning's concern for human rights that she was ready to invoke the wrath of her own countrymen, when she unhesitatingly condemned them for their policy of imperialism worldwide, while practicing democracy at home.


The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with Two Prose Essays. Ed.  Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press: London, 1916.   All text references are from this edition only. Page numbers have been given in brackets.

E B Browning: Biography>poems&poets      1 August, 2013.

Moers, Allen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. London: W H Allen, 1977.

Priestley, J E. The Awakening World -2 : The Great Uprisings 1815-1871. London: Muller, 1966.

Smith, George Bernard.  E B Browning 18 July, 2005.